Belgian talks fail to rescue Canada-EU trade pact

Leaders to reconvene on Thursday but Ceta deal unlikely in time to save Trudeau summit
Demonstrators protest against Ceta outside the EU summit in Brussels last week © Reuters

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Intensive talks to settle a Belgian dispute that threatens to scupper an EU trade deal with Canada broke up late on Wednesday night without agreement.

The suspension of the talks came hours after a potential breakthrough had been signalled in the prolonged negotiations between regional leaders in Belgium who have prevented the country from signing the Ceta pact.

The talks are set to resume on Thursday morning but the logjam looks unlikely to be cleared in time for the planned Brussels summit with Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister. Mr Trudeau has warned he will not travel from Ottawa without agreement on the deal.

“We regret it but it will not be possible to hold the summit tomorrow,” Paul Magnette, leader of the French-speaking Walloon region that has been in the vanguard of opposition to Ceta, said late on Wednesday.

The other 27 EU members states are ready to sign the agreement but the deal cannot go ahead without Belgian approval.

The latest round of talks broke up at 11pm in Brussels, two hours into negotiations that had been cast as a final push to settle outstanding technical questions and uncertainty over the timing of parliamentary votes to reverse objections to Ceta.

In advance of that meeting, a diplomat briefed on the situation had said the sole remaining question was whether Ceta could be quickly approved by the regional assemblies whose blessing was required for the government to sign the pact.

Belgian leaders have been in lengthy talks over the most contentious elements of the pact, with no sign of agreement, for many weeks. But Didier Reynders, Belgium’s foreign minister, signalled progress in the late afternoon on Wednesday as talks were suspended for three hours. “All texts are consolidated, on all topics,” he said. The pause was required for final consultations and clarifications, he added.

The Walloon parliament was at the centre of opposition to the Canadian agreement but it was supported in that stance by the assembly for the Brussels capital region. Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, strongly backs Ceta but he cannot sign it without the approval of these bodies and other federal entities.

Talks on Wednesday had started at 8am. At issue primarily were the details of powers for new investment courts to decide on legal action taken under Ceta. This has proved particularly contentious in Wallonia, where many opponents of the deal were motivated by anti-globalisation sentiment.

Before the last round of talks on Wednesday, the diplomat said: “They have found a solution between the different government entities in Belgium. It’s now an issue of timing. Is it possible at all to have it go through the different parliamentary bodies by Thursday evening?”

Ceta has been on the brink of failure since Mr Michel declared on Monday that he could not appease its opponents, threatening the collapse of an ambitious deal agreed two years ago with Canada after a five-year negotiation.

The affair has jeopardised EU trade policy by raising questions over Europe’s power to conclude complex deals even when agreements are supported by all 28 governments in the bloc.

Despite signs the Belgian blockage can be removed, observers in the trade world have warned that Ceta’s tortuous passage points to the likelihood of trouble in looming trade talks between the EU and the post-Brexit UK.

Donald Tusk, European Council president, told the European Parliament on Wednesday morning that the stakes were very high.

“If we cannot make the case for free trade with a country like Canada, the most European country outside Europe and a close friend and ally, there are obvious consequences for Europe’s global position,” he said. “But it is too early to go there yet. As we speak, the summit tomorrow is still possible.”

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