BRUSSELS — Time was running out on the European Union to sign a landmark free trade deal with Canada on Thursday after Belgium failed to make decisive headway to lift a crucial veto of one of its regions.
In a race against the clock to avoid an embarrassing cancellation of a special summit, recalcitrant Francophone leaders insisted late Wednesday they would need more time to study and approve the latest compromise texts following talks with the Belgian national government, which desperately wants to sign the trans-Atlantic deal.
The 28-nation EU can only sign the agreement if it has unanimity among its 28 member states and Belgium can only approve it is all its regional executives back it.
But Wallonia leader Paul Magnette said late Wednesday that his region would not be able to approve the deal in the coming hours, making it ever more unlikely the full signing ceremony with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be held on Thursday.
"We regret it but it won't be possible to have the summit tomorrow, but nothing is impossible," he said, leaving little space for approval. Earlier he had said that an EU-Canada summit would come "one day, but not tomorrow!"
It showed that despite the likelihood of missing the Thursday deadline, the talks with Wallonia were heading toward a compromise which would allow the signature at a later stage.
Magnette said that some details still need to be clarified, notably in the agriculture sector where he wants his farmers better protected.
If the regional leaders agree, the adjustments to assuage Wallonia would have to be vetted by the 27 other nations and then likely still have to go back to the regional francophone legislatures for approval. It makes the deadline for signature next to impossible.
If not Thursday, the summit could be postponed for later in the year, but the failure would be an embarrassment for the EU, the world's biggest trading bloc which wants to project itself as a dependable global partner.
Politicians in Wallonia, which has a population of 3.6 million compared to over 500 million for the whole EU, argue that the proposed accord would undermine labor, environment and consumer standards.
Proponents say it would yield billions in added trade through customs and tariff cuts and other measures to lower barriers to commerce. At the same time, the EU says it will keep in place the region's strong safeguards on social, environmental and labor issues.
He said Wallonia's insistence on a better deal would bolster EU standards and set a strong precedent for other trade talks between Europe and trading partners like the United States or Japan.