Canada, EU race to persuade restive Walloons to abandon opposition to trade deal

OTTAWA – Canadian and European politicians are scrambling to save their coveted free trade agreement after a Belgian region voted Friday to reject the deal.

They are working into the weekend to persuade Belgium’s Walloons to abandon their opposition to the deal before a key meeting this coming Tuesday in Europe.

EU trade ministers meet then to vote on the pact, a week before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to join his EU counterparts at a summit in Brussels, where the two sides are hoping to sign the deal.

Ministers from all 28 EU countries must unanimously approve the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, or CETA, on Tuesday or it is effectively dead after seven long and sometimes controversial years of negotiation.

Europe’s ability to unanimously approve the deal was dealt a setback Friday when the legislature of Belgium’s Wallonia region voted to reject the deal.

The Wallonia vote can’t be dismissed outright because the Belgian constitution gives its three regional governments — Wallonia being one of them — a potential veto over the deal. Without the region’s support, Belgium’s national government can’t move forward.

A glimmer of hope remains.

As the week ended, the regional government had not yet formally told its federal counterpart in Brussels that it was not supporting the deal.

Friday’s parliamentary vote is not binding on the regional government so a major diplomatic push was immediately mounted to persuade Paul Magnette, the Wallonia leader, to back away from his pledge to withhold his region’s support from Belgium.

French President Francois Hollande asked Magnette to come to Paris on Friday to discuss the matter, a move seen by some as an unprecedented outreach by the leader of the French republic to an otherwise small, regional government.

“The president of the republic, as we speak, is meeting with the head of the Walloon government, in order to lift the last hurdles and to allow this deal to be signed,” the visiting French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told a news conference in Quebec City with Premier Philippe Couillard.

“There are a few days left to convince our Walloon friends and to allow the signing of the deal by Belgium.”

Couillard said he didn’t want to re-open the deal, a possibility Magnette raised earlier Friday.

But he said a five-page declaration of principles that is to be added to the massive text of CETA might hold the key to persuading the Walloons.

“He (Magnette) wanted to be assured that the declaration has as much force as the treaty itself. And I think we can head in this direction. Let’s see what the next few hours will bring.”

Pierre Pettigrew, a former Liberal trade and foreign minister recently appointed by the current Liberal government as a special trade envoy, also held talks Friday with Magnette in Paris.

“The conversation was valuable and frank,” said Alex Lawrence, a spokesman for Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“As Canada has said, this is a progressive deal. And if Europe is incapable of signing a progressive deal with a country like Canada, this will send a clear and very unfortunate signal.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion expressed confidence that Pettigrew and others would be able to persuade Magnette to have change of heart.

“More and more the EU will see that after the Brexit vote that it’s important for them to show that they are able to move ahead,” Dion said on a conference call from Honduras.

“They have an opportunity to show to the world that the EU is still able to move ahead, for progressive policies and free trade.”

On Thursday, Trudeau had sharp words for Europe as the Walloon roadblock loomed on the horizon, saying it would be a “shame” if the deal couldn’t be signed.

Speaking to reporters in Medicine Hat, Alta. on Friday, the prime minister tempered his assessment.

“I’m confident that there are so many strong European countries like France, as we saw yesterday, Germany is fully on board and others, that this deal is going to make it through.”