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Marathon EU-Canada trade talks continue amid Belgian opposition

EU leaders remained optimistic that Belgium's federal government could win over recalcitrant French-speaking communities


AFP I PTI  |  Brussels 

Deal structuring eased, teething troubles remain

European leaders pressed on Wednesday with troubled negotiations for a landmark EU-Canada free trade deal as stubborn Belgian regions held out on key terms of the agreement.

Canadian and European Union (EU) leaders warn that the EU's standing, already battered by Britain's shock June Brexit vote, will suffer another blow if seven years of trade negotiations go to waste because of internal Belgian politics.

EU leaders remained optimistic that Belgium's federal government could win over recalcitrant French-speaking communities in eleventh-hour talks, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still due to fly in to sign the deal tomorrow.

But the Socialist leader of the holdout Wallonia region told reporters there were outstanding issues concerning "two important subjects" written into the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) -- investment protections and agriculture issues.

Paul Magnette has repeatedly warned he will break off the talks in Brussels if he keeps receiving "ultimatums" to strike a quick deal.

The talks were suspended temporarily late on Wednesday afternoon and were due to resume at 9.00 pm (local time), Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said, voicing optimism that a deal was on its way.

"I believe we have now stabilised all the texts, all of the documents have been given to all the participants, there are probably still talks ongoing," he said as he left the prime minister's residence.

"I guess (it is) just left to conclude the texts and send them to the European Union," he added.

The talks were the latest of many rounds between Belgium's centre-right federal government with regional leaders in a bid to break the deadlock.

"I trust that an agreement will be reached in the course of today with Belgium, Wallonia and other parts of the country," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker earlier told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

But he said he did not know if the deal would be reached in time to go ahead with Thursday's scheduled signing summit with Trudeau.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president who would host the summit, told the European Parliament he hoped the agreement would be finalised soon.

"The summit tomorrow is still possible," Tusk added.

He also warned that the EU's reputation would be dealt a blow "if we cannot make the case for free trade with a country like Canada, the most European country outside Europe and a close friend and ally.

First Published: Thu, October 27 2016. 08:39 IST