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EU and Canada sign free-trade pact to the backdrop of red-paint protests

Critics see Ceta as a Trojan horse for a larger and more controversial deal between the EU and the United States.

Belgium Europe Canada Trade Donald Tusk, Justin Trudeau and Jean-Claude Juncker. Source: AP/Press Association Images

THE EU AND Canada finally signed a landmark free trade deal seven years in the making today, after overcoming last-minute resistance from a small Belgian region that nearly torpedoed the entire agreement.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flew to Brussels for a ceremony that had been pushed back from Thursday after Wallonia with its population of 3.6 million initially vetoed a pact affecting more than 500 million people.

Cheers and applause erupted as they inked a long-anticipated deal that will remove 99% of customs duties between the two sides, linking the single EU market of 28 nations with the world’s 10th largest economy.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan welcomed the signing.

“I strongly believe that the conclusion of this CETA deal is in the best interests of Ireland, the EU and Canada.”

It is expected that this agreement, which will eliminate virtually all tariffs in bilateral trade between Canada and the EU, could lead to an increase in annual trade of up to €11 billion per year.

Belgium Europe Canada Trade Source: AP/Press Association Images

But in a sign of the fierce passions aroused by the giant Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta), protesters burst through riot police lines and hurled red paint at the EU’s headquarters.

Around 100 protesters banged drums and shouted slogans outside the European Council building while Belgian riot police backed by water cannon looked on, AFP reporters said.

The glass front doors of the building were also daubed with red paint after some protesters briefly managed to break through police lines, with a number of them arrested.

The activists see Ceta as a Trojan horse for the even larger – and more controversial – deal between the EU and the United States.

There are also concerns that the deal will erode consumer, social and environmental protections as highlighted by Wallonia – a declining industrialised region in Belgium’s south.

Hanging in the balance

The fate of the Canada-EU deal – so close to the finish line after seven gruelling years of negotiations – had been hanging by a thread until just days ago because of Belgium.

Belgium Europe Canada Trade The signing today was also further delayed when Trudeau's plane from Canada suffered mechanical issues and had to turn back for repairs. Source: AP/Press Association Images

French-speaking Wallonia had for two weeks resisted huge pressure to back the deal until it won concessions for regional farming interests and guarantees that international investors will not be able to force governments to change laws.

Following marathon talks led by Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, the Walloons finally agreed on Thursday evening, and a day later, Trudeau agreed to fly in for the delayed signing.

The pact required all EU member states to endorse it and in some cases such as Belgium’s for regional governments to agree too, giving tiny Wallonia an effective veto.

‘Trojan horse’

Belgium EU Canada Trade Source: AP/Press Association Images

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker meanwhile said the deal was an “international standard that will have to be followed by others” – such as TTIP, an agreement that the EU is currently negotiating with the United States.

Negotiations for that deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), have however stalled in recent weeks, and the goal of approving it by the end of President Barack Obama’s term in office now having been abandoned.

The troubles with the Canadian deal have meanwhile been seen as a possible harbinger of things to come for Britain as it tries to negotiate a new trade pact with the EU after it leaves the bloc – most likely in 2019.

- © AFP, 2016

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

Read: ‘I’m staying out of this’: John Kerry was asked about Clinton’s emails while in Ireland

Read: ‘Come 2018 we’ll have the tax!’: Foster signals a soft warning to Irish government

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