Belgium has announced a breakthrough in talks to secure a landmark EU-Canada trade deal by winning over the leaders of a recalcitrant Belgian region, potentially snapping a deadlock which threatened European credibility anew.
“An agreement” was found on Thursday in support of the deal, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told a news conference after marathon talks to win over holdouts in Belgium’s French-speaking community.
Confirmation of the intra-Belgian agreement came swiftly from Paul Magnette, the head of government of the southern French-speaking Wallonia region and the leading holdout to the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA).
The CETA pact would link the EU’s single market of 500 million people – the world’s biggest – with Canada’s 10th largest global economy in what would be the most ambitious tie-up of its kind so far.
In almost a week of drawn-out talks, leaders of Wallonia, a 3.5 million-strong region south of Brussels, had demanded guarantees that CETA will not harm local farming and other interests.
Magnette had especially opposed terms of the deal intended to protect international investors, which critics say could allow them to force governments to change laws against the wishes of the people.
“We have finally found an agreement among the Belgians that will now be submitted to European institutions and our European partners,” Magnette said.
“Wallonia is extremely happy that our demands were heard,” he added.
Canada’s Foreign Minister Stephane Dion hailed the move to break the logjam.
“If it materialises, it’s excellent news,” he said during a visit to Paris, adding he was “cautiously optimistic”.
A deal will still have to be approved by the other 27 EU members and then by Belgium’s regional parliaments by midnight on Friday.
The stakes have been high as Belgium had become a lightning rod for warnings that the EU’s international standing, already battered by Britain’s shock June Brexit vote, would suffer further if seven years of trade negotiations go to waste.
Under complex constitutional arrangements, Michel needed all of Belgium’s regional governments to back the deal before he could sign up. In turn, the accord required all 28 EU members to approve it.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, hailed the “good news” from Michel as he tweeted he would contact Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau “once all procedures are finalised for EU signing CETA”.
Tusk warned that failed negotiations with such a close ally as Canada would have a serious impact on Brussels’ international standing.
“It’s been a big wake-up call for many countries,” Dennis Novy, Associate Professor of economics at the University of Warwick, said of the negotiations.
“If the EU is not able to do a deal with Canada – which is a friendly country and very similar to the European Union in terms of ethics, in terms of norms and what people want – then of course it would probably be harder for other countries.”
Al Jazeera’s Duncan Golestani said not everyone was happy with Thursday’s announcement.
“Right now there’s a protest going on right around the corner, people still angry at this deal,” Golestani reported from Brussels.