EU-Canada trade deal clears crucial hurdle

BRUSSELS (AFP) - A contested EU-Canada free trade deal cleared a key hurdle on Tuesday (Jan 24) as EU lawmakers defied rising anti-globalisation sentiment to back one of Europe's most ambitious accords.

Members of the European Parliament's powerful trade committee voted 25 in favour of the deal, known as CETA, with 15 against, during a heated session in Brussels that was interrupted by a protestor.

CETA now goes to a showdown vote in a full session of the European Parliament on February 15, where the EU leadership hopes for a symbolic show of support for a global trade system in the face of rising protectionism championed by new US President Donald Trump.

"Those who, in the 21st century, think that we can become great again by rebuilding borders, reimposing trade barriers, restricting people's freedom to move, are doomed to fail," said the EU's top trade negotiator, Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem in a speech shortly after the vote.

If all goes well next month, the deal could be partially implemented as early as March, Malmstroem added.

Boosters of CETA describe it as a new kind of deal that not only breaks the usual barriers but enshrines high standards for international trade.

"With CETA, we are rejecting unfettered globalisation and laying the foundations for a new era of rules-based trade," social democrat MEP David Martin, a key backer of the deal, told AFP.

But CETA's opponents slam it as a gift to multinationals who will use the deal to lower health and environmental standards and circumvent government regulation.

"It's a defeat," Greens MEP and French presidential candidate Yannick Jadot told AFP.

"The European Parliament has ignored all the lessons of Trump's victory and the Brexit vote in giving more power to corporations and reducing the power of citizens," Jadot said.

The EU and Canada formally signed the deal in October after seven years of tough talks, overcoming last-minute resistance from a small Belgian region that blocked its national government from approving the accord.

The deal now needs the green light from the European Parliament but will also require approval from the EU's 30-plus national and regional parliaments in order to take full effect.

The committee vote came a day after Trump delivered on his protectionist campaign promises and ended US participation in a sweeping trans-Pacific free trade agreement.

He is also widely expected to drop a similar deal with the EU known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP.