Wallonia premier says region not opposed to EU-Canada free trade deal

Minister-President of Wallonia Paul Magnette arrives for a meeting on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a planned EU-Canada free trade agreement, at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, Belgium, October 25, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

PARIS (Reuters) - Wallonia premier Paul Magnette said the Belgian region was not opposed to a planned EU-Canada free trade deal in itself but that an arbitration scheme needed to be dropped and public services protected.

All 28 EU governments support the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) but Belgium cannot give assent without backing from five sub-federal administrations. French-speaking Wallonia has steadfastly opposed it.

“Let’s be clear, I’m not a herald of anti-globalization, I want a deal,” Magnette told French daily Liberation in an interview published on Tuesday.

But he said a court system specifically created to resolve disputes between investors and governments could be exploited by big business to dictate public policy.

“I would prefer that this entity disappears pure and simple and that we rely on our courts,” he said. “Or at the very least, if we want an arbitration court, it must provide equivalent guarantees to domestic ones.”

Magnette referred to a mechanism known as Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), which allows foreign companies to challenge state interference, such as expropriation.

Typically, the lawsuit is brought before a panel of private arbitrators, its members appointed by the investor and state in dispute. The mechanism has been criticized because of lawsuits brought by companies against tighter rules on public health, environmental and labor standards.

Magnette said Canada agreed with Wallonia on this issue. “In truth, it’s a debate that is purely internal to the European Union,” he said.

Magnette said Wallonia was ready to accept a legally binding amendment to CETA that would interpret provisions on arbitration courts, public services and environmental legislation, although it would have preferred a complete re-negotiation.

Reporting by Michel Rose,; Editing by Richard Balmforth