Europe trade deal overcomes regional hurdle
Power change in Wallonia lifts obstacle WE HAVE MADE PROGRESS, BUT IT’S A LONG WAY (TO GO).
OTTAWA • A major roadblock in the ratification of Canada’s free trade agreement with Europe seems to have lifted, according to Belgium’s deputy prime minister.
In an interview Tuesday, Didier Reynders said Belgians see Canada as a partner on promoting multilateralism while major powers seem to slide back towards protectionist attitudes. He shrugged off Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision not to meet with Belgian royals as they visit Canada this week, and downplayed Rideau Hall putting up the wrong country’s flag by accident Monday.
This first official state visit in 41 years comes about six months after the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, entered into provisional application.
Reynders, who also acts as the Belgian foreign minister, said Wallonia, a French-speaking region within Belgium, seems poised to ratify CETA despite its quibbles almost preventing the deal from being signed in late 2016.
It is led by a different parliamentary majority as of last summer, one that seems more receptive to the idea of trade.
He said Belgium’s seven parliaments, which all need to sign off individually, will likely finish the ratification process late this year or early next year. Of the EU’s 28 member states ( soon to be 27, once Brexit takes effect), only about a quarter have ratified so far.
Belgium is already seeing benefits since the majority of CETA came into effect last September, said Reynders. A few kinks still need to be worked out, though. One of the major points of contention during the final stages of negotiations — including one that had Wallonia threatening to block CETA completely — was how investment disputes could be settled among the trade partners.
Instead of using existing mechanisms, Canada and the EU negotiated a new “i nvestment court” that would, in theory, be more transparent than the dispute settlement panels already being used in other trade agreements. But the details have not been agreed upon. “We have made some progress, but it’s a long way (to go),” he said.
At Belgium’s request, the European Court of Justice is preparing advice for the EU on the legalities of this approach.
Recent actions by t he United States are only further proof that governments believing in multilateralism should try to partner with each other, said Reynders. He said he had a “very interesting meeting” with Canadian trade minister François- Philippe Champagne about the benefits of free trade on Monday.
“Of course with the evolution in the world now it’s i mportant t hat we have some partners able to defend the same values. ... When you look to Russia, when you look to Turkey, when you l ook to China, maybe also to your neighbour country to the south, they are more and more evolutions in a negative way about multilateralism,” said Reynders.
As he sat down and settled in for the interview, Reynders was glued to a smartphone. He said he was reading news reports to understand what was happening with his counterpart in the U. S. — Rex Tillerson, with whom he said Belgium had “very good relations,” had just been sacked.
The unpredictability of the Trump administration and its decisions has caused headaches for both countries.
Canada is exempt from steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the Trump administration for “national security” reasons. But the European Union, collectively one of the world’s biggest steel producers, isn’t.
“There’s no national security reason to have such clarification about steel and aluminum. It’s nonsense,” Reynders said, adding Belgium and other European countries are part of the same military alliance as the U. S. with NATO, and cooperate extensively on security issues.
A preoccupation with the steel issue is what’s getting Trudeau a pass on his decision not to meet with Belgian royalty, though Reynders admitted that in addition to meeting ministers and the Governor General, “we would prefer also to discuss with the prime minister.”
“As a politician, I fully understand that this may be a priority to be very close to the workers, very close to the different people involved in the steel industry,” he said.
Over a kerfuffle Monday that had a Belgian journalist noticing a German flag at the Governor General’s residence, Rideau Hall — it has the same colours, but in horizontal stripes rather than vertical ones — Reynders was nonchalant.
“There are so many flags in the city that such a problem with one is not a real difficulty to us,” he said, adding, “we are very close with Germany.”
Queen Mathilde and King Philippe of Belgium tour the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa on Tuesday.