BRUSSELS — The European Union and Canada signed a landmark trade pact Sunday, ending days of drama after a small Belgian region refused to endorse the agreement and deeply embarrassed the EU.
As protesters gathered outside EU headquarters in Brussels, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, put an end to the suspense by signing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade agreement.
“This accord is the product of long discussions. Frank discussions, but which have always taken place in respect, among partners that share common values,” Trudeau told reporters afterward.
The EU needed unanimity among all its 28 members, and Belgium needed the backing of all its regions to approve the pact known as CETA. Trudeau had been due to sign it Thursday but was forced to cancel his flight when Belgium couldn’t sign on because of opposition from the Wallonia region.
Wallonia, smaller than New Jersey, defied hopes for a deal between more than 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians for weeks. Politicians there argued that CETA would undermine labor, environment and consumer standards and allow multinationals to crush local companies.
After several rounds of talks late into the night last week, Belgium formally gave its endorsement Saturday morning. Even Trudeau’s plane appeared to have conspired to hold up the signing ceremony as it turned back to Ottawa overnight with mechanical problems.
But Trudeau, who made it to EU headquarters only two hours late, said he welcomed the challenge posed by Wallonia.
“The fact that throughout people are asking tough questions of a deal that will have a significant impact on our economies, and giving us the opportunity to demonstrate that that impact will be positive, is a good thing,” he said.
Juncker lauded the agreement as “the best and most progressive that we have ever signed.” He added that “we are grateful to Canada for being as patient as it has been.”
But, Juncker said wagging his finger, “Belgium should reflect on the way it functions when it comes to international relations.”
On the other side of EU headquarters, a rowdy group of around 250 anti-CETA protesters gathered to block the front entrance as riot police watched. Red paint was smeared on the building. Some demonstrators had actually entered the foyer. Police took away 16 people but didn’t break up the protest, spokeswoman Ilse Van de Keere said.
The EU says CETA will remove more than 99% of tariffs and boost trade with Canada by 12 billion euros ($13.2 billion) a year, creating economic growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. It insists the deal won’t prevent governments from moving to protect environmental and social standards if they believe action is needed, despite concerns in Wallonia and elsewhere that big companies would have free rein.
“We are setting international standards which will have to be followed by others with whom we are in negotiations as far as free trade is concerned,” Juncker said.
Work on the agreement was launched in 2009 and the text was actually finalized two years ago but sat in limbo awaiting endorsement.
The delay has raised troubling questions about the EU’s ability to seal big trade agreements. Work on a similar pact with the U.S. dubbed TTIP has barely advanced this year and little progress is likely before a new U.S. president takes office in January.
“There is no realism in concluding TTIP right now,” EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said Sunday, noting the U.S. election campaign.
None of it bodes well for the trade talks that Britain will need to have with its 27 EU partners once it leaves the bloc.