Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in Brussels on Sunday along with the heads of European Union institutions.
Trudeau agreed last minute to fly to Belgium to sign the deal, which aims to remove trade barriers and facilitate the exchange of goods between Canada and the EU.
The signing ceremony was also attended by EU President Donald Tusk, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.
"We are setting standards which will determine globalization in the coming years," Juncker said at a news conference alongside Trudeau. "Nothing in other trade agreements will be able to remain below the level of what we have reached today with Canada."
Tusk hailed the signing on Twitter, calling Canada the "most European country outside Europe" as well as a "strong ally and good friend."
Germany's Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel also praised Sunday's signing of the deal, saying that it marks the beginning of a more "just" approach to globalization "with European standards for consumer and environmental protection."
CETA will only provisionally take effect once the European Parliament approves it. It is expected to vote on the deal either in December or January.
The signing was delayed by some hours after mechanical problems forced Trudeau's plane to turn back briefly to Ottawa.
"Well done, well done," Trudeau said as he hugged and kissed Tusk and Juncker on his arrival. "Things were difficult but we managed to succeed in the end."
"What patience," replied Juncker, adding: "This is an important day for the EU and for Canada too, because we are setting an international standard that will have to be followed by others."
The ceremony had already been postponed from the original planned date on Thursday, after the French-speaking Belgian region of Wallonia initially rejected the deal in a regional parliamentary vote on October 14. However, lawmakers there finally approved the deal on Friday after the region, which has a population of just 3.5 million, received a number of concessions.
These included benefits for regional farming interests, and guarantees that international investors will not be able to force governments to change laws. Resolving the impasse allowed Belgium to sign up to the deal on Saturday, with Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders quipping, "Nothing is simple in Belgium, but few things are impossible," as he endorsed the pact.
Fears that the deal would allow multinational corporations to override decisions by democratically elected national governments have been a major factor in opposition to the deal by many activists, who also see CETA as a precedent for an even bigger and more controversial EU-US trade deal, TTIP. There have been major protests across Europe against both deals, which opponents say could undermine European standards for healthcare and consumer protection.
CETA removes 99 percent of customs duties between Canada, the world's 10th largest economy, and the single EU market of 500 million people.
Full implementation of the agreement will begin only after clearance is granted by three dozen national and regional parliaments.
The summit on Sunday will also see the discussion of a number of other topics, including the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Britain's imminent exit from the EU and the civil conflict in Syria.
rs, tj/jlw (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)