LUXEMBOURG – The European Union’s foreign trade chief acknowledged that member states will likely be unable to back a landmark trade deal with Canada as scheduled on Tuesday but she was optimistic the deal could still be signed next week.
EU Foreign Trade Commissioner Margot Malmstroem said objections from a Belgian region were still being worked on and said that “we are not really there yet and I don’t think we will land today. But there is still time.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to fly over to sign the deal on Oct. 27. Malmstroem said that there was still time to overcome Belgian objections right up to “when the prime minister needs to book his tickets from Canada.”
The trade pact requires backing from all 28 member states, and Belgium can only back it if all of its regions do so.
The francophone southern region of Wallonia of 3.5 million again rejected the deal last week. EU and Belgian officials are now working on an interpretive text that goes with the agreement to pull them on board and save the deal between 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians.
Wallonia fears that its farmers will be priced out of the market with cheap Canadian produce and that many of the labour standards they fought for will be obliterated.
WATCH: Canada’s International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland remains “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects of the CETA deal
“I remain cautiously optimistic about CETA – but at this point the ball is very much in the European court,” International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Monday in Ottawa.
“We’re working hard with the Europeans … Everyone I talked to today said: ‘Hang on in there, we believe this is going to happen.’ ”
Many Walloons also fear the deal will be a precursor for a similar pact with the United States, the TTIP deal, which they fear will cut even further into their livelihoods and consumer and environmental standards.
Canadian and EU officials have been racing to persuade the Walloons to ditch their opposition to the agreement.
“(Tuesday’s) vote will be very key,” Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said in Montreal. “We renegotiated the rules of the deal so that we fully clarified that governments can legislate, on their own, progressive social and environmental policies.”
Freeland added that if the deal fails “it would be a real shame.”
“It would also say something quite significant about Europe’s ability to conduct trade policy if they can’t get it done,” she said. “But we’re working hard and there’s still a little bit of time.”
When asked if she thinks the central Belgian government will be able to convince the Walloons, Freeland said there were no guarantees.
“But I know that all of Europe except for Wallonia want this accord,” she added.
Last week, Freeland dispatched special trade envoy Pierre Pettigrew, a former Liberal trade and foreign minister, to meet with Paul Magnette, Wallonia’s leader.
Tuesday’s initial deadline for the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement was slipping fast out of reach as Magnette raised last-minute objections. “We will need a few more days,” he said late Monday.
Malmstroem said she understood Canadian impatience.
“It is not easy. We are 28 and we have slow procedures. The Canadians have been very patient,” she said. “They have been very attentive to accommodate many of our concerns.”
– with files from Associated Press