European Union (EU) member states failed to seal signatures of all 28 countries at a meeting to ratify the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada earlier this week, as the Wallonia region of Belgium remained opposed to the deal.

EU trade ministers met in Luxembourg on Tuesday, with plans to have all members in agreement ahead of officially signing the pact with Canada next week. Belgium’s position now threatens to bring down the deal.

“We are working with the last country that has not been able to agree yet on this and talks are intense and they continue,” said European commissioner for trade Cecilia Malmström following the meeting.

Wallonia, a French-speaking area in southern Belgium, voted against CETA because of fears that local workers will be laid off if the agreement leads to cheaper industrial imports. While Belgium’s federal government is for the deal, Wallonia argues that the agreement gives too much power to multinational companies.

Arriving at the talks, Belgian minister for foreign, external trade and European affairs, Didier Reynders, said that his attendance confirms that Belgium is in favour of CETA and that he hopes that by the end of the week they will be able to move on the deal.

Romania and Bulgaria also raised issues over visa liberalisation. The two countries expressed their concerns over adequate guarantees that they will get visa-free travel to Canada for their citizens.

Commenting on the likelihood of the deal being signed next week, Daniel Capparelli of advisory firm Global Counsel tells GTR: “The signing of CETA on October 28 depends on whether a ‘Belgian compromise’ can be arrived at by this Friday’s European Council meeting. This will most likely take the form of an ‘interpretative declaration’ currently being negotiated between the European Commission (EC) and Canada.

“Much will depend on Canada’s willingness to find a quick solution to these issues, although it is important to bear in mind that these compromises can often take a long time to negotiate.”

Public concerns

CETA has been in the works since 2009. A unanimous agreement from all members and their respective parliaments is needed in order for the pact to proceed.

Opposition to the deal, and similar ones like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), has been growing among the public and professional bodies, who argue that these deals will hinder standards on products and markets as well as on climate policies adopted in the EU. There are also concerns that the deals will pave the way for privatisation of public services.

Having negotiated the deal behind closed doors, policymakers are now keen to create more transparency to highlight the benefits and advantages the agreement could bring.

“The Commission has together with the presidency worked on an interpretative declaration that will be published,” said Malmström after the meeting. “The intention of that is to highlight the best of CETA, making sure that in a plain language our citizens who have concerns can understand that nothing in CETA is forcing us to lower our standards. That we are cooperating in sustainable development issues, that we know that nothing in CETA will force any entity on any level to privatise public services.”

She continued: “It is an agreement that will have economic benefits from day one when it comes to public procurement, lowering tariffs, access to services and also the first agreement of its kind where issues such as sustainable development, label laws, human rights are actually raised – something that many citizens and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been asking for a long time.”

CETA can be seen as a dress rehearsal for TTIP. And it is not going well. Daniel Capparelli, Global Counsel

CETA negotiations are being watched closely, as they are considered by many to indicate not only the likely processes and outcomes of similar trade deals and discussions (namely the EU-US transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) and future Brexit negotiations with the UK), but the credibility of the EU itself.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau posed the question “if Europe is unable to sign a progressive trade agreement with a country like Canada, then with whom does Europe think it could to business in the years to come in this post-Brexit situation when there are many questions about Europe’s usefulness?”

Capparelli agrees that the failure of CETA would severely damage the EU’s credibility as a negotiating partner and would pose an existential question for EU trade policy.

“At the very least it raises important questions about the EU’s ability to negotiate and deliver comprehensive trade agreements when these must also undergo national ratification procedures in all EU member states. At one level, CETA can be seen as a dress rehearsal for TTIP. And it is not going well.”

Other commentators have highlighted that the stalls from sub-national level involvement, while slowing down agreements, should be welcomed, as this will lead to a more robust and legitimate economic globalisation.