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The Belgian government has announced that due to regional divisions, it cannot yet give the necessary backing to the European Union’s free trade deal with Canada, making it unlikely that the bloc can sign deal on time.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Monday that EU leaders and Canada had asked for a clear commitment, “and the clear answer, at this stage, is no.”
Michel said the French-speaking region of Wallonia and other regional administrations refused to give the federal government the go-ahead.
“The federal government, the German community and Flanders said ‘yes.’ Wallonia, the Brussels city government and the French community said ‘no’,'” he added.
A deadline has been set late on Monday for the Belgian government to agree on a deal.
Belgium’s failure to reach a favourable decision is likely to force the European Union to call off a planned signing summit on Thursday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The deal needs unanimity among the 28 EU nations and Belgium is the only approval lacking since it needs the backing of all its regions.
Saving the deal
European Union executive called for patience in an attempt to save the free trade deal and had already dismissed a Monday night deadline as counter-productive.
On Monday, Wallonia President Paul Magnette insisted he would agree to nothing under the threat of an ultimatum.
“Each time they put forward such an ultimatum it makes a serene discussion and a democratic debate impossible,” Magnette said of the deal.
EU leaders have been putting pressure on Wallonia, population 3.5 million, to drop its objections over a deal that covers over 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians.
The EU Commission, which has negotiated the deal on behalf of the 28 nations, insisted that this week’s summit was not the final deadline.
“Now, we need patience,” said EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas. “The Commission traditionally does not set deadlines or ultimatums.”
Even if Thursday’s EU-Canada summit has to be called off, it could always be rescheduled when Wallonia has signed on to the agreement, Schinas indicated.
Over the past week, Belgium missed two deadlines to agree to the deal and Canada briefly walked out of the trade talks before returning the next day.
EU officials said that without guarantees that the EU is ready to finalise the deal, there would be no reason to have a summit on Thursday with Trudeau.
Politicians in Wallonia, which is smaller than the US state of New Jersey, argue that the proposed CETA accord — short for Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement — would undermine labour, environment and consumer standards.