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European Union Trade Deal With Canada Moves Forward

New York Times


BRUSSELS — A stalled deal to deepen commercial ties between the European Union and Canada appears back on track, after Belgium overcame objections that had threatened to derail the region’s entire trade agenda.

The deal, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, was held hostage by the French-speaking portion of Belgium, Wallonia, where the rust belt has been hit hard and farmers worry about potential competition. The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, said on Thursday that the country’s leaders had reached a compromise that would restrict biotech crops and address a disputed legal provision.

Although the breakthrough paves the way for a deal, it could still run into problems.

The Belgium regional parliaments have to vote on the compromise, which the prime minister said was expected by Friday at midnight. The other 27 countries in the European Union must agree. And Canada needs to sign it.

“This is a positive development, but there is still work to do,” Alex Lawrence, the press secretary for Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s international trade minister, wrote in an email. “Canada remains ready to sign this important agreement when Europe is ready.”

The situation belies the extent to which trade has become politically toxic as citizens increasingly blame globalization for growing disparities in wealth and living standards.

In the European Union — already hampered by terrorism, the decision by Britain to relinquish membership and an immigration crisis — trade policy has been especially fraught, exposing the deep rifts in the region. The negotiations over the trade agreement pitted Wallonia, which has a socialist leadership, against the comparatively free-market Flemish north section of the country.

As the standoff escalated last week, the deal appeared dead, raising concerns about whether any major trade deal could be made in Europe. If the countries could not agree on a relatively straightforward deal with Canada, a thorny, complex treaty with the United States would have been nearly impossible.

“The suspense has been intense,” said David Kleimann, an international trade researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. “This seems to be the end of any real opposition in Europe.”

For now, the outlook is cautiously optimistic.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who represents the bloc’s 28 national leaders, welcomed the progress. And European Union governments were reviewing the deal late on Thursday after their diplomats in Brussels gave it initial approval, said Renata Goldirova, a spokeswoman for the government of Slovakia, the country that currently runs such meetings.

Many will be seeking a quick decision after seven years of negotiations. Unanimity among member states is a precondition for the deal, and Belgium was the only holdout.

“The process to get here was very tough and damaging for the E.U.,” Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said on Thursday, referring to the breakthrough announced by Mr. Michel. “That must not happen again.”

But national governments will also want to make sure the terms of the Belgian compromise do not undermine Europe’s leverage in future trade deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States. The United States represents a much larger market than Canada.

Belgium, too, could still pose problems. Mr. Michel, the country’s prime minister, acknowledged that the compromise still needed the agreement of the regional parliaments, including the balky Legislature in Wallonia, where opposition has been fiercest.

Mr. Tusk wrote on his Twitter account that he would take the step of contacting the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to arrange a new date to sign the trade treaty only “once all procedures are finalized.” Mr. Trudeau had been scheduled to sign the deal before the impasse.