The world’s latest political battle over free trade did not take place, as usual, at a conference table at a G20 summit or at the popular protest grounds outside the architecturally imposing home of the European Union in Brussels. It occurred, instead, in the Belgian town of Namur, population 110,000 and home to the Parliament of Wallonia, which represents the 3.5 million French-speaking Belgians (or Walloons) in the country’s south. In mid October, it became the first parliament of an EU member state to reject CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), a free-trade pact between Europe and Canada. CETA, the brainchild of the European Commission, would largely eliminate tariffs and encourage cross-border investment between the EU and Canada. It is worth an estimated 15 billion euros and critical for the credibility of Europe’s future trade policy, its supporters argue.
But Paul Magnette, Wallonia’s Socialist minister-president, inched the trade deal toward the edge of a cliff when he began to openly voice his region’s popular opposition to CETA due to its inadequate environmental protection measures and its shadowy investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms. And, because of a technicality in EU treaty laws, Wallonia’s veto meant that the free trade deal had been legally rejected for all Europeans despite other national parliaments’ unanimous approval of CETA in the previous weeks.
Just as it seemed that CETA would be cast into the dustbin of history, a last-minute deal was struck on October 30. The compromise between Belgium’s regional leaders added four pages of unilateral demands from the Belgian government that exempt the country from CETA’s investor dispute regime for two years and built in backstops for Belgian farmers in the event of an oversupply of goods.
The changes are altogether minor, even if Magnette tried to make them appear like a great moral victory for Europe’s left. But how the passage of CETA played out does leave the world wondering how a region of 3.5 million people could have held hostage