Wallonia Stymies EU-Canada Trade Deal

The European Union and Canada are negotiating a free trade deal (the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement, CETA), and as with all EU deals, every one of the 27 member states must approve the agreement. Canadian diplomats threw up their hands in disappointment and went home a couple days ago when it became clear Belgium could not approve the agreement. Every member has its own constitutional mechanism for approving a treaty, and in the case of Belgium, the regional assemblies have to OK an agreement as well as the central government in Belgium. It appears the French-speaking Socialist Party that governs Wallonia in the country’s south doesn’t want to play along. It’s a question of local politics interfering in global policy making.

That case for the deal is, as usual, purely economic. Reuters reports “CETA supporters say it would increase trade between the partners by 20 percent and boost the EU economy by 12 billion euros ($13 billion) a year and Canada’s by C$12 billion (US $9 billion).”

Still, there are legitimate arguments against the agreement. Reuters suggests, “Walloons have concerns about the threat of surging pork and beef imports from Canada and an independent court system to settle disputes between states and foreign investors, which critics say allows multinationals to dictate public policy.” Moreover, when foreign corporations make investments in Belgium these days, they are much more likely to locate in Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north.

The Socialist Party in Wallonia still has the kind of power most left-wing parties in Europe and elsewhere only remember. So, there is a desire to use it, and all the more so because it is no longer part of the ruling coalition in Brussels. Daniel Beland of the University of Saskatchewan observed, “For several decades in a row, the Francophone Socialist Party was part of the ruling coalition at the central level. But now they are no longer part of that coalition so there is a sense that they have lost some of their clout, at least at the federal level.” This veto threat is a flexing of muscle for local reasons.

Marc Hooghe at the University of Leuven in Flanders noted that in addition to benefiting Flanders more than Wallonia, CETA is a precursor to approving a US-EU deal along the lines of the Transpacific Partnership. Dr. Hooghe told the Canadian Broadcast Corporation that “the real objection is to giant corporations using trade deals like CETA and its U.S.-Europe equivalent TTIP, now under negotiation, to overwhelm European values.

“Both have been combined into this monster of free trade, getting rid of all environmental standards, all social standards,” he says. “CETA is being sacrificed to stop TTIP.”

Flanders premier Geert Bourgeois said, “It’s a real shame. We’re the laughing stock of the whole world. It’s bad for Wallonia, for Flanders, for Belgium, for Europe, for the whole world.”

The deal isn’t dead by any means. It is difficult to believe that French-speaking Wallonia won’t make a deal of some sort that would help it trade with Quebec. Andre Antoine, Walloon parliament speaker, told Reuters earlier on Monday, “Ultimatums and threats are not part of democracy. We want a deal, we want a treaty, but we want to negotiate it with a minimum of courtesy and respect. A reasonable time frame would be the end of the year. With that, we could get there.”

Paul Magnette, the premier of the Wallonia region, is making a principled stand according to some. According to others, he’s playing politics to make himself the leader of the Belgian left and to boost the left in the EU. In all likelihood, this is one of those delightful situations that arise in the career of a politician where principle and opportunity are the same. Eventually, Wallonia will make a deal but not before Mr. Magnette gets his pound of flesh.