Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has cancelled his visit to Brussels after intra-governmental talks in Belgium on the EU-Canada trade deal ended without agreement late on Wednesday night.
Mr Trudeau had been expected to sign a landmark comprehensive economic and trade agreement (Ceta) between the EU and Canada but French-speaking regions of Belgium have blocked the deal.
A spokesman for the international trade minister Chrystia Freeland said Mr Trudeau would not travel as planned, adding, "Canada remains ready to sign this important agreement when Europe is ready."
EU officials confirmed the cancellation on Thursday morning.
Negotiators for Belgium’s regional parliament were to convene at 10am on Thursday in Brussels with ambassadors from all 28 member states ready to sign-off on the deal as needed.There had been expectations on Wednesday that a deal was imminent.
Earlier in the day European council president Donald Tusk refused to close the door on an agreement, despite giving the Belgian negotiators a deadline of Monday evening to reach a deal, saying the summit was "still possible".
"At the end of the day, only the Belgians can decide on Belgium's position. I am impressed by the determination and engagement they have shown during the last hours," he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, also expressed optimism that an agreement would be reached, allowing the long-planned summit to go ahead.
But following two days of talks in Brussels, Belgium’s regional governments failed to break the impasse on Wednesday night.
Rudy Demotte, the head of the Brussels-Wallonia federation, which represents the French community in the Brussels region, earlier hinted that a deal might not be done. The French-speaking representation in the Brussels region has joined Wallonia in opposing the deal.
Ten days after the Wallonian parliament blocked the deal, the region’s main concerns continue to focus on a controversial investor court which would allow corporates to sue governments, and fears about the impact of Ceta on the region’s agricultural, particularly dairy, industry.
Ireland, along with the 26 other member states, have backed the provisional application of the deal which imposes a quota on agricultural products that are imported into the EU. It is understood that farm organisations such as the IFA were engaged in the negotiations in the early stages of the talks which commenced in 2009 and are happy with the export opportunities promised by the deal.
The failure of the talks strikes a serious blow to the European Union’s credibility as a trade partner. Member states signed off on the deal two years ago following five years of negotiations.
The controversy over Ceta has divided Belgium, with the Flemish parliament and federal government backing the deal, and the socialist-led representatives of the French-speaking community opposing it.
Pros and cons
According to the European Commission, the trade deal between the EU and Canada would remove 98 per cent of tariffs and also open up the services market between the two blocs, allowing EU firms to compete for Canadian contracts and standardising professional qualifications between the two regions.
But anti-trade campaigners believe the agreement will have a negative effect on environmental and consumer standards.
Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly called on Belgium to back the deal, noting that Ceta would not force the EU to change its existing regulatory framework for GMOs or the ban on chlorinated chicken within the EU.
But other Irish MEPs, including Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy, applauded the Walloon parliament. "Ceta, like TTIP, is a bad deal which would have serious negative implications for Irish farmers, workers and consumers," he said, referring to the EU-US trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
Independent MEP Nessa Childers questioned the need for a special investor court to be included in the scheme, saying that the concept had been invented to safeguard western investors from expropriation when they set up operations overseas in countries with poor governance records.
“Such schemes mushroomed beyond their original purpose and have fed a private arbitration industry. Governments ended up being sued by big business over matters ranging from cigarette packaging through the discontinuation of nuclear power plants, to the removal of neurotoxins from petrol.”