LUXEMBOURG (AP) — A small region in Belgium will be standing up to the united might of the 28 European Union leaders this week, knowing its decision to reject a huge trade deal between the EU and Canada will bring the whole trans-Atlantic agreement down.
Thanks to Belgium's byzantine political system, Wallonia, a francophone region of 3.5 million people, has the power to force the national government to withhold its support for the trade deal, which was already backed by the rest of the EU.
It used that power Tuesday — and since the agreement needs unanimity among EU states, the issue must now be tackled by the bloc's leaders at a summit starting Thursday.
"We stand alone," said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, himself a firm backer of the deal with a majority of Belgians. "We have an agreement of 27 member states. I can even say 27.5 or 27.6."
If Wallonia's reservations are not dealt with then, an EU-Canada summit and the official signing ceremony scheduled for Oct. 27 would have to be canceled, leaving Belgium — and Europe — red-faced with embarrassment.
"It is a very important moment not only for a very important EU policy, foreign trade, but also for Belgium," said Reynders.
Wallonia, with a population of 3.5 million, wants more guarantees to protect its farmers and Europe's high labor, environmental and consumer standard. It also fears the agreement will allow huge multinationals — first from Canada, later from the United States, if a similar deal with Washington follows — that would crush small Walloon enterprises and their way of life.
Proponents say the deal would yield billions in added trade through 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.
Wallonia's rejection left many stumped, even within Belgium, wondering how such a small region could have such an impact on a deal between over 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians.
"If we don't agree with Canada, with whom are we going to agree? I don't understand," said Slovak Economics Minister Peter Ziga, who chaired Tuesday's meeting.
"Quite frankly, I cannot imagine that the final stumbling block would be Belgium," Ziga said, recalling the nation's free trade credentials and its cultural proximity to Canada, another multilingual country with much francophone influence.
EU countries fear that the bloc will lose credibility if a deal of this size can be derailed by a member state's single region.
Tuesday's initial deadline for the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada was missed after Wallonia Minister President Paul Magnette raised objections. "We will need a few more days," he said late Monday.
Germany remained confident that the deal would eventually be approved. "I don't think that the agreement can fail," Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said. Even if some other EU nations don't feel fully comfortable with the agreement, it is only Belgium's approval that is missing, officials said.
Canada's International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Ottawa that she remained "cautiously optimistic" about the deal. "But at this point the ball is very much in the European court."
"We're working hard with the Europeans ... Everyone I talked to today said: 'Hang on in there, we believe this is going to happen.'"
Reynders fully backed Freeland. "I am ready day and night to work to find a solution," he said.