Belgium’s ambassador to Canada says there is still life in the free trade deal the Liberal government is trying to finalize with the European Union and there may yet be ways to save it.
Raoul Delcorde made the comments in an interview with CBC News Network’s Power Politics on Friday, hours after International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland walked out of negotiations with one of Belgium’s regional governments, declaring a deal “impossible.”
“I would not say the deal is dead, first of all, I think there are still some ways to salvage the negotiations,” Delcorde told host Rosemary Barton.
“I speak for myself here, I cannot imagine that a treaty which was negotiated during, I believe, seven years could be killed by a stroke of a pen,” he said. “I think that this is actually the best treaty you can imagine in terms of free trade for the 21st century.
“We have to do something and I don’t know about any Plan B yet, but something has to be done, because, and this is the view of many, this is a good treaty.”
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The Canada-EU trade deal, or CETA, has to be ratified by the parliaments of all member states of the EU to come into force. Delcorde explained that while the deal is supported by the federal Belgian government, two regions, the Brussels region and the southern French-speaking region of Wallonia, are holding out.
Belgium’s constitution gives each regional parliament a role in trade agreements, requiring them to support the deal before the country can sign on. In the meantime, the small region of Belgium with a few million people holds a veto over a continental trading block of 500 million Europeans.
‘They are negotiating still, the commission, maybe, let’s be optimistic, maybe by Monday we have a deal.’
– Belgian Ambassador Raoul Delcorde
Delcorde said that while it was a wise decision to give regional parliaments more power when it comes to trade, his country did not anticipate one of those regional parliaments killing a trade deal. “I think many were surprised, but this is democracy,” he said.
The two areas of concern, Delcorde said, are the potential threat to Belgium’s labour, environmental and health standards when it comes to public services and adequate protection for the agriculture sector.
Those concerns, Delcorde explained, were dealt with in an annex to the agreement crafted by Canadian and Belgian officials, but the annex fell short of pleasing the Walloon region’s parliament.
Despite the apparent collapse of negotiations, Delcorde refused to dismiss the deal as dead.
“They are negotiating still, the commission, maybe, let’s be optimistic, maybe by Monday we have a deal,” he said. “Because really the lives of so many people both in Canada and the EU depend on trade, trade is essential, and this treaty is therefore essential for our trade relations.”
Meanwhile, Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, appeared to be trying to restart the talks late Friday, tweeting that he would be meeting with Wallonia Minister-President Paul Magnette and Freeland on Saturday morning.
Freeland’s office has not confirmed the meeting, saying her earlier comments stand.
Reaction to the collapse of talks
Negotiations behind the scenes were expected to continue over the weekend and a consensus may yet emerge, but as of Friday, several stakeholders and observers reacted to the news that talks had broken down and the deal may not be completed.
“I applaud the Wallonian regional parliament for standing firmly against this bad deal. In its current form, CETA will increase pharmaceutical costs and hurt farmers, manufacturing sectors, and Canadian sovereignty,” said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty said he was disappointed by the breakdown in talks, because it would be difficult to find two players more suited to building an economic alliance.
“Ratifying CETA would provide an important signal that the EU can still build international relationships in a post-Brexit world, so it’s particularly damaging to have it fall short because of internal politics,” Beatty said.
The Council of Canadians issued a statement saying the breakdown was pushback for “corporate-led globalization” initiatives.
“This major setback for CETA is not just because of Wallonia alone. There is deep, widespread opposition to CETA and many millions of people agree with Wallonia’s stance. Thousands across Europe and Canada spoke up and took action to make this happen,” says Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians
Ken Neumann, the United Steelworkers union’s director for Canada, welcomed the collapse of talks, saying the deal was bad for Canada and bad for Canadian workers.
“I am pleased the Europeans have stood up to it,” said Neumann. “We think it is a flawed agreement. Not that we are opposed to trade, everyone understands trade is important, but any time you sign a trade deal that is not going to benefit workers it should not be a surprise that we’d be opposed to it.”
Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, the union representing more than 300,000 workers in the auto sector and communications, energy and paperworks industries, said he was also pleased the deal appeared to be falling apart.
“It’s wonderful,” said Dias. “It’s about time countries are starting to say that trade deals shouldn’t only be about corporate rights, they should also be about workers. Allowing international corporations to sue governments is a trend that has to be reversed.”
Claire Citeau, executive director of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, said her members were saddened to hear that a deal so important to the farming and food production industries was on the verge of failing.
“Currently we are disappointed,” Citeau said. “Negotiations were finished a month ago, Canada was flexible, and yet the EU, at the last minute, is asking for more, so I may wonder if they really can deliver.”
“While disappointed, we remain hopeful that officials will come to a deal.”