Germany's Gabriel wins over key critic ahead of vote on EU-Canada trade deal

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[September 19, 2016]  By Holger Hansen and Caroline Copley

WOLFSBURG, Germany (Reuters) - Germany's Vice Chancellor has won over an important critic in his Social Democrats (SPD) party ahead of a crucial vote on a trade deal between the European Union and Canada, raising the chances that Europe's biggest economy will back the accord.

The center-left SPD is the junior partner in conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition and some party members have sharply criticized the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), the EU's most ambitious trade accord to date.

However Sigmar Gabriel, who is also Germany's economy minister, has championed CETA and says it represents the EU's best chance to shape globalization so that it serves people and not just the interests of big business.

Some 235 delegates will decide at an SPD convention on Monday in Wolfsburg, northern Germany, on whether to give CETA the green light.

Ahead of the convention, the SPD executive committee unanimously backed a new compromise on CETA which Gabriel agreed with left-wing lawmaker Matthias Miersch, one of the accord's fiercest critics, according to a person familiar with the vote.

The compromise calls for the European Parliament to launch a consultation process before a decision is taken on what parts of CETA should be applied provisionally.

Gabriel has tied his fate to the success of CETA and a failure to secure a majority of delegates in favor of the accord could scupper his chances of standing as the party's candidate for chancellor in national elections next year.

WORKERS' RIGHTS

CETA is due to be signed by Brussels and Ottawa next month prior to full ratification by EU member states' parliaments. It aims to eliminate tariffs on 98 percent of goods immediately and also encompasses regulatory cooperation, shipping, sustainable development and access to government tenders.

Left-wing members of the SPD argue that the deal will undermine workers' rights and environmental standards, and see it as a blueprint for a parallel trade deal the EU is trying to negotiate with the United States, which is known as TTIP.

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Consumer rights activists hold banners to protest against the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) during a meeting of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), which are expected to narrowly vote in favour of a trade deal between the European Union and Canada in Wolfsburg, Germany, September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

"Now and later, stop TTIP, stop CETA," protesters gathered outside the convention in Wolfsburg chanted, waving banners and banging drums.

Around 180,000 people took part in rallies on Saturday in seven German cities against both trade deals, police said.

Some left-wing SPD members remained skeptical about CETA.

"We need to say 'no' to our approval in the European Council," said Klaus Barthel, head of the SPD's task force on employee matters, adding this would bolster the party's credibility with voters.

With just over a year to go until Germany's federal election, the SPD is badly trailing Merkel's conservatives in opinion polls.

(Reporting by Holger Hansen and Caroline Copley; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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