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Politics Freeland’s CETA theatrics nothing less than calculated posturing

Last Friday, Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland told the world she was fed up with Europe's inability to sign off on a free trade deal, and she was leaving Europe – in tears, according to some reports – to go home to her three kids. On Monday, she said the decision to leave was "calculated." Both were probably true.

The real reason Ms. Freeland huffed and puffed in frustration last week was that it was calculated posturing. It was the same reason she appeared before reporters on Monday to tell them Canada's part in negotiating is done, that it is up to the Europeans to sort it out, and that Canada is still waiting to see if it can be signed, as planned, on Thursday.

"Canada is ready to sign now," she repeated when she was asked if Thursday's signing ceremony could be delayed. "We've done our job. Now it's up to Europe to do its job."

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Related: Canada-EU deal in question after Belgium declines to sign on

Related: What's Wallonia's deal? A primer on its role in CETA's crisis

Related: The Walloon that roared: Federalism's new fragility

What else can she say? The truth is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be willing to fly to Europe to sign a deal after that Thursday "deadline," and really on almost any Thursday in the next three years. It may be the last trade agreement Mr. Trudeau will see, and he wants to send a pro-trade signal. But there is a tactical imperative: Close the deal now, or risk it unravelling like a ball of string.

So take it with a grain of salt when Conservative politicians chastise Ms. Freeland for leaving Europe, and the talks with Wallonia, rather than staying to finish the job. We have reached the theatrical stage of the negotiation, and the Trade Minister's performance has a purpose.

The Canada-EU trade deal, known by the acronym CETA, has been in the works for years: The two sides formally agreed to launch negotiations at a summit in Quebec City eight years ago, in 2008. The plan to sign it on Thursday is being held up by the Wallonia region of Belgium. Without Wallonia's approval, Belgium cannot sign, and without Belgium's approval, Europe cannot sign.

Wallonia's Premier, Paul Magnette, has voiced concerns that the deal might hurt local farms, and that its investor-state dispute settlement mechanism might let companies block environmental or social regulations. Others in Europe, notably on the political left in Germany and Austria, had expressed similar concerns about investor-state disputes, and Ms. Freeland agreed to negotiate a new "interpretive declaration" to allay them. Then Wallonia raised new objections at the 11th hour. Now, EU leaders are trying to twist Mr. Magnette's arm.

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But that is why Ms. Freeland left Europe last week. That is why she said Canada has no more negotiating to do. That is why she suggested – although she never explicitly said – there is still a Thursday deadline, when there really is not. It is posturing to keep the pressure up. Opening the door for more time or more changes is an invitation to trouble.

For Canada, bringing this trade deal toward a close has been a game of European whack-a-mole. There were Romanian and Bulgarian objections about visas, German doubts about the investor-state mechanism, some late political qualms from Austrian socialists, and then the Walloons.

More time would likely bring more demands. Mr. Magnette is already being hailed as a hero by critics of the trade deal. Opponents in other places in Belgium and the rest of Europe are campaigning to get their politicians to follow suit.

So Ms. Freeland has to stress deadlines. If Mr. Magnette will not accede by Thursday, Ottawa will want to hear another date in the near future – to prevent other parts of the EU from raising new objections.

That is also why Ms. Freeland had to call time on discussions with the Walloons, and why she did it in such a theatrical way. She probably was fed up, but the trade minister is tough enough that she would not express that in her written statement out of mere pique. But she wanted to signal Canada's willingness to play let's-make-a-deal has limits. Otherwise, critics in other places might see it as an opportunity to reopen negotiations and press their politicians to make new demands. And while Canada might be willing to make a one-off side-agreement to close the deal with the Walloons, it does not want to reopen the trade pact for more whack-a-mole.

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