EU gives Belgium ultimatum over Canada trade pact

A placard reads 'Stop CETA - it's enough' during an anti-CETA protest in front the Walloon parliament in Namur, Belgium on October 21, 2016, during a meeting on CETA (EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement).
A placard reads 'Stop CETA - it's enough' during an anti-CETA protest in front the Walloon parliament in Namur, Belgium on October 21, 2016, during a meeting on CETA (EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement).PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - The European Union gave Belgium a barely 24-hour ultimatum Sunday (Oct 23) to say whether it can back an EU-Canada trade deal, warning otherwise it will cancel a summit to sign the accord with Ottawa.

In an embarrassment for the 28-nation EU, Belgium has so far been unable to sign up to the CETA trade deal because of blockage by its French-speaking region of Wallonia.

Canada's trade minister Chrystia Freeland flew home from Brussels Saturday saying the ball was in the EU's court, after talks on Friday failed to overcome the differences.

She said she still hoped to be able to come back with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to sign the accord as planned at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

On Sunday a European source said European Council President Donald Tusk would call Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on Monday afternoon or evening, to see if the deal can be salvaged.

Tusk will ask Michel "one simple question: will Belgium be in a position to sign the agreement on Thursday, yes or no?" said the European source.

The EU Council chief will also call European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker "to share an assessment of where we are," and lastly Trudeau "to decide whether to maintain the summit." "Regarding Thursday, if Belgium is not in a position to say that they guarantee they can sign, it's very clear for Tusk that it doesn't make sense to have a summit, and there will be no summit, and there will be no date set for a new summit," the source said.

The source added that any decision would be made jointly by Tusk and Trudeau.

"The decision will very much depend on what Michel tells Tusk," the source said.

The pact known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) would link the EU market of 500 million people with the world's tenth biggest economy.

The CETA is opposed by anti-globalisation groups who say it is a test model to push through an even more controversial EU-US trade deal called TTIP, talks on which have also stalled.

And Wallonia has some support around Europe.

On Saturday, 8,000 people including young people, farmers, union leaders and entrepreneurs joined a rally in Amsterdam in a show of solidarity, organisers said.

They held banners saying "Our world is not for sale" and "Stop these bad trade treaties".

Wallonia's government chief Paul Magnette told AFP on Friday that his Belgian region needed more time but that there was still scope for an agreement.

"Democracy takes a little time," Magnette said. "I wasn't asking for months, but you can't carry out a parliamentary process in two days."

He singled out a highly controversial investment protection scheme buried in the deal that has drawn the fury of activists.

Wallonia has also enjoyed support from activist groups like Greenpeace which charged that the deal risked satisfying "corporate greed" and trampling on people's rights and health standards on both sides of the Atlantic.

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday dismissed warnings that the EU-Canada deal raised serious questions about whether London could strike a similar agreement after BREXIT.