Friday, October 21, 2016

Wallonia against the world!

Whether or not you are in favour of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), you have to admit that the current situation is a pretty ridiculous one.
The little Belgian region of Wallonia (it is usually described as a "French-speaking" region, as though that explained everything) has effectively vetoed the wide-ranging trade agreement between Canada and the EU, which has been seven years in the making and which is supported by pretty much everyone else. Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, who has invested so much time and effort in the talks, left the meeting holding back tears, and calling the trade deal "impossible", and musing that "the European Union is incapable of reaching an agreement".
So, little Wallonia, a region of southern Belgium that few outside of Belgium have even heard of, and which boasts a population of about 3.6 million, is somehow able to scupper a deal that affects 508 million Europeans and 36 million Canadians. All the other countries of Europe are in favour of the deal, as is even the Belgian national government. But some quirk of EU and politically-decentralized Belgian law requires, for "jurisdictional" reasons, that all three Belgian regions also sign off on the deal. It also seems that the agreement must be unanimous - a "requirement" that was introduced late in the negotiations, leading to accusations of the EU moving the goalposts - whereas hardly any recent EU agreements have had such a strict requirement (most require a "qualified majority", meaning 55% of states representing 65% of the population).
The socialist government of Wallonia is convinced that they as a region may not benefit from the deal, which aims to eliminate 98% of tariffs between Canada and the EU and to generally boost bilateral trade between the two blocs. As a result, Wallonia seems happy to deny the trade benefits to everyone else. Yes, there are other anti-globalization groups within Europe who are not happy with the deal - as there always will be with such large-scale agreements - generally on the grounds that such deals give too much power to multinational companies. But Wallonia is the only regional government willing to stick their necks out on the issue, and to block a deal that is supported by every other government in Europe and Canada.
Yes, you can see that they want to protect their own, but somehow I don't think that this is the way that democracy is supposed to work, and Wallonia is messing with other people's livelihoods, in Europe and in Canada, as well as their own population's. The EU, and Belgium itself, seems embarrassed by Wallonia's intransigent stance more than anything else. There is more at stake here, though, and the EU is painfully aware that this may have repercussions for future EU trade deals. Wallonia's stance is only going to encourage other countries and regions to pursue their own specific grievances and demands for special accommodation. Many commentators in the media and political circles are musing that, if the EU can't manage to conclude a trade deal with Canada, then just who will they ever be able to deal with?
Many European officials are probably also worried that outsiders will see this as further evidence, if more were needed, of the level of disfunction within the European Union, which of course they will. And all because of little Wallonia.
Canada has limited itself to public expressions of "disappointment" at the news, but I'm sure that much stronger words have been used in back-rooms.

Well, the CETA deal was indeed signed today by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and top EU officials, just a few days late.
After a lot of frantic last-minute wrangling (and probably a significant amount of leaning by the EU, which we may never find out about), Wallonia and Belgium finally agreed on an addendum to the deal which "addressed regional concerns". The EU breathed a collective sigh of relief, and Canadians are left wondering whether the whole thing was actually a good idea after all...
However, although an agreement has been signed, it remains to be ratified, first by the EU parliament (in the next few months) and then by the legislatures of all the individual EU countries (which could take years more of protracted negotiations), although apparently some benefits of the deal should start to be felt immediately. And the controversial dispute resolution system, which has been the focus of much of the opposition to the treaty on both sides of the Atlantic, remains unconfirmed and in limbo.
It's all very confusing!

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