Belgium breaks deadlock over EU-Canada free trade pact

Thu Oct 27, 2016 2:56pm EDT
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By Robert-Jan Bartunek and Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium's regions agreed to a free trade pact with Canada on Thursday, ending weeks of uncertainty when internal divisions in just one country blocked the European Union of 500 million people sealing the landmark deal.

Prime Minister Charles Michel said the regions and linguistic communities had drafted a four-page addendum to the pact that answered their concerns.

The text addresses fears that a system to protect foreign investors could let multinationals block new rules on the environment, labour rights or public services - specifying that the "investment protection" regime would not come into force during an initial period. It also has a safeguard clause to protect agriculture in the event of a "market imbalance".

"As a unilateral Belgian declaration, Canada's approval will not be sought or needed," a source close to the talks said, indicating the path was now clear to finalise the deal.

European Council President Donald Tusk gave the Belgian agreement to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) a cautious welcome.

Belgium's regional governments have until the end of Friday to consult their parliaments if needed, and ambassadors from other EU countries will also review the addendum.

All 28 EU governments back CETA, which supporters say could increase trade by 20 percent, but Belgium's central government had been prevented from giving its consent because of objections led by the French-speaking Wallonia region.

Wallonia, along with the capital Brussels and Belgium's groupings of French and German speakers, had opposed the deal for weeks, with fears about a flood of Canadian farm imports one of the main sticking points.   Continued...

Minister-President of Wallonia Paul Magnette arrives at a meeting on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a planned EU-Canada free trade agreement, at the Lambermont Residence in Brussels, Belgium, October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Yves Herman