BRUSSELS • The European Union's hopes of signing a landmark free trade deal with Canada this week appeared to have evaporated as the Belgian federal government failed to win the consent of French-speaking regional authorities.
European Council President Donald Tusk had given Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel until yesterday, three days before the planned signing, to resolve the impasse. But a meeting Mr Michel hosted with leaders of the five sub-federal authorities, whose permission he needs to go ahead, ended in stalemate yesterday.
Mr Tusk is now expected to contact Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and call off an EU-Canada summit that was scheduled for Thursday in Brussels, although all sides insist the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta), seven years in the making, remains in everyone's interest.
MORE TIME NEEDED
Ultimatums and threats are not part of democracy. We want a deal, we want a treaty, but we want to negotiate it with a minimum of courtesy and respect. A reasonable timeframe would be the end of the year. With that, we could get there.
WALLOON PARLIAMENT SPEAKER ANDRE ANTOINE
"We cannot give a yes," Mr Paul Magnette, Premier of the French-speaking Wallonia region, told reporters as he emerged.
He said the main problems remained not with Ottawa, which has already agreed to modifications in the deal, but with the EU authorities.
Other Socialist-led regions, including the bilingual capital Brussels, are ranged behind the Walloons, while Dutch and German speakers back Mr Michel's liberal-led federal coalition.
"We have a yes from the federal, Flemish and German-speaking communities and it's a no from the others," said Flanders Premier Geert Bourgeois after the meeting at Mr Michel's residence lasting less than an hour.
"It is a real shame," the centre-right leader said. "We are the laughing stock of the whole world."
Mr Michel said it was too early to say Ceta was dead and that the Walloons and he were still open to dialogue. However, he said he must inform Mr Tusk that Belgium was not in a position to consent now to a deal that all 27 other EU member states are ready to support.
EU negotiators have stressed that they are willing to keep talking with the Walloons. Canada's trade minister left in frustration after talks in the regional capital Namur last Friday and said the problems were now internal ones for the Europeans.
The only deadline, EU officials emphasised, was caused by the need to help Mr Trudeau schedule his week and that there had been no attempt to push Mr Magnette by fixing an ultimatum.
Mr Andre Antoine, Walloon Parliament Speaker, told Reuters earlier yesterday: "Ultimatums and threats are not part of democracy. We want a deal, we want a treaty, but we want to negotiate it with a minimum of courtesy and respect.
"A reasonable timeframe would be the end of the year. With that, we could get there."
Ceta supporters say the pact would increase trade between the partners by 20 per cent and boost the EU economy by €12 billion (S$18.2 billion) a year and Canada's by C$12 billion (S$12.5 billion).
Walloons have concerns about the threat of surging pork and beef imports from Canada, and an independent court system to settle disputes between states and foreign investors, which critics say will allow multinationals to dictate public policy.
If Ceta fails, the EU's hopes of completing similar deals with the US or Japan would be in tatters, undermining a bloc already battered by Britain's vote to leave it and disputes over Europe's migration crisis.