Throwback to Wallonia’s position on CETA

  What kind of obstacles did the European Union and Canada have to face when it came to the signing of CETA ? In this article, Voix d’Europe endeavors to highlight Wallonia’s position on the free trade agreement. Find more information on the issue in the article written by Chloé Lourenço.

   On October 30th 2016, the EU-Canada trade deal, also known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), was eventually adopted by the Council of the European Union and signed at the 16th EU-Canada summit in Brussels by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Slovakia Robert Fico and President of the European Council Donald Tusk. Negotiated in August 2014 and legally reviewed in February 2016, the bilateral free trade agreement has been a tremendous challenge for the states parties as well as the European and Canadian consumers. As a matter of fact, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement aims at boosting trade and strengthening economic relations between both partners by creating growth, ensuring employment and offering Canadian and EU companies, farmers and food producers more attractive business opportunities. Indeed, the benefits of CETA for individuals and businesses across Europe are said to be multiple : for instance, customs duties between the European Union and Canada on industrial products will be eliminated, intellectual property rights will be strengthened in order to better protect European traditional products, innovations and artists and barriers for investors willing to enter the Canadian market will be removed. What could then possibly go wrong ?

  And yet, even days before the end of the negotiations, the trade deal was still regarded as hugely controversial for various reasons by several European Union member states and was especially heavily criticized by Paul Magnette, the current Belgian Minister-President of the region of Wallonia, who recently delivered a speech in which he explained his firm opposition to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Many anti-CETA demonstrations in support of Paul Magnette and Wallonia took place in Belgium, in particular in Brussels, where hundreds of activists gathered around the European institutions to express their discontent. The fact is that the CETA needed the approval of all 28 EU member states in order to be properly applied. Even though Belgium’s federal government approved the trade agreement in its comprehensive form, Wallonia showed defiance towards the project and decided at first to simply refuse backing the transatlantic deal, thus creating a regional impasse and making the whole country unable to sign the text. This impasse was emphasized by Paul Magnette’s powerful sentence pronounced at the regional parliament of Wallonia : “I will not give powers to the federal government, and Belgium will not sign CETA on October 18th”.

  So how did Wallonia deal with the controversial transatlantic deal that was planned to “set high standards for global trade” ? And what are the specific issues related to the CETA that were raised by the leader of the Wallonia region ? We will firstly analyse the way the European Commission tried to pressure Belgium, then we will study the reasons that urged Wallonia to postpone the signature of CETA and we will finally mention the happy ending of the negotiations, also known as “the Belgian compromise”.

An effective and progressive deal for Belgium and Europe ?…

   On September 20th 2016, knowing that plenty of anti-CETA public demonstrations were going to be organized in Belgium, Cecilia Malmström, Commissioner for Trade at the European Commission in Brussels, decided the react to the rising effervescence caused by the impending signature of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. In her speech before the Federal Chamber of Representatives of Belgium, Cecilia Malmström highlighted the progressive aspect of the CETA by proving the ability of the treaty to meet today’s needs, which concern hot topics such as growth, employment and industry.

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Cecilia Malmström

  The main point of this speech was actually to reassure the Europeans, and more precisely the Belgian population, on the current European Union trade policy. The tone used by the EU trade commissioner was purposely insistent and convincing in order to defend the propositions of the “excellent agreement”. According to her, CETA should be approved because of its effectiveness and its ability to protect agriculture and maintain the European product standards (the same controversial issue that is ceaselessly evoked and questioned by the critics who reject the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership TTIP). In addition, the Commissioner for Trade mentioned the transparency of the free trade agreement between the European Union and Canada, saying that “negotiators were in close contact with civil society and closely watched over by Member states and the European Parliament”.

  The speech then began to take a different direction. Indeed, Cecilia Malmström pointed out the fact that Belgium suffered a great shock when the company Caterpillar, the world’s number one heavy machinery-maker, announced at the beginning of September the closure of its Gosselies plant as well as the loss of 2,200 jobs in the country. In other words, the EU Trade commissioner used this recent news to enumerate the several advantages of the EU-Canada bilateral trade agreement and consequently make Belgium aware of the positive impact that the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement would have on jobs and growth all over the Belgian territory. The stress was put on the fact that the CETA would represent a great new source of prosperity and innovation for Belgium and would give the opportunity to the country to rise from the ashes.

  By emphasizing the latest economic difficulties encountered by Belgium and the various benefits of CETA, Cecilia Malmström tried to pressure the EU member state with her recent declarations in order to appease critics and gain support for the ratification of the treaty. This intervention from the Trade commissioner has not really been appreciated by Wallonia and its Minister-President Paul Magnette, who then reacted by giving his own position on the agreement and its content. From then onwards, the negotiations on the trade deal instantly froze between Wallonia, the European Union and Canada.

 … or just a free trade agreement that did not respond to Wallonia’s concerns ?

  As a matter of fact, Cecilia Malmström’s speech and strong position on the CETA have not been well-received by all Belgian politicians. In mid-October, after a long and intense debate at the regional parliament, Minister-President Paul Magnette and other lawmakers from Belgium’s French-speaking region of Wallonia showed resistance and finally voted against the EU-Canada trade deal. According to them, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) could undermine environment, consumer and labour standards in Belgium. In his counter-speech in response to Cecilia Malmström’s pressure and to the impending deadline to sign the bilateral agreement, he explained the reasons why he would not give his agreement to launch the project.

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Paul Magnette

  First and foremost, Paul Magnette underscored the fact that technocrats – which were supposedly the main negotiators of the treaty – were not qualified enough to take the lead on issues such as education, agriculture and environment. Indeed, Wallonia, just like many other Non-Governmental Organisations in Belgium (NGOs) was especially worried that its agriculture would be toughly affected by the entry into force of the transatlantic deal. As a consequence, Wallonia asked for more and stronger guarantees in the agricultural sector in order to protect the Belgian farmers. Among other things, Paul Magnette feared that the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement would weaken Wallonia’s agricultural economy as he recently declared in an interview for the French newspaper Le Monde : “A safeguard clause for the Canadian farmers is envisaged, and it is very well. But I do not understand why it is not also the case for the Europeans [the farmers]. It is true that our partner is smaller than the European Union, but a Canadian product whose export quotas would concentrate on a single country or a single region could destabilise the whole agricultural sector.” As a result, agriculture became one of the most sensitive aspects of the long-delayed EU-Canada trade agreement.

  Furthermore, some Members of the Walloon Parliament belonging to the Belgian Humanist Democratic Centre party (in French : Centre démocrate humaniste, cdH) called for the addition of an “agricultural exception” in the already existing treaty between the European Union and Canada. More precisely, the final aim of this exception was the recognition that “the agricultural and agri-food products cannot be treated as having exclusively a commercial value”, as the Belgian deputies explained. Even current Belgian Minister of Agriculture and Tourism in the Walloon government René Collin, who is also a member of the Humanist Democratic Centre party cdH, reacted in mid-October on the social network Twitter by saying that “[our] family farms must be preserved, for [our] farmers and… for the quality of our meals !”. Almost all the most famous and influential politicians from Wallonia gave their (negative) opinion on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, thus explaining that the bilateral treaty is nothing more than a very controversial text that was elaborated without taking into account all European Union member states’ concerns.

  Afterwards, the European Commission in Brussels tried to reassure Wallonia by demonstrating that some customs duties will remain for a certain number of agricultural products and that the CETA will not change the European existing rules on food safety and environmental protection. But Wallonia then pointed out another burning issue…

Lack of democracy and transparency

  Indeed, the other issue which was raised by Walloon Minister-President Paul Magnette after agricultural and environmental protection is obviously the controversial lack of democracy and transparency surrounding the whole making of the EU-Canada treaty. In the famous speech he delivered at the regional parliament of Wallonia, Paul Magnette underlined the fact that the trade deal had been all along secretly negotiated by technocrats “behind the back of all European citizens and consumers” – a negotiation that actually questions the whole nature and philosophy of international trade and, more generally, globalization.

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  As explained in the Minister-President’s intervention, the protection of democracy was also one of the main reasons why Wallonia decided to postpone the signature of CETA. It is precisely because Wallonia remains “a territory with a strong democracy vitality” which should be preserved that the ratification of Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the European Union and Canada has been blocked by the region. Paul Magnette actually blamed the European Union for not taking into account the voice of the Walloon trade unions and associations while negotiating the bilateral deal. Whereas the different associations and trade unions in Wallonia firmly tried to make their demands heard and fight for higher social and environmental standards in the CETA, the negotiators seemed to have not cared about them, thus adopting measures that ran counter to the interests of the Walloons. Consequently, Minister-President Paul Magnette publicly protested against the cruel lack of transparency surrounding the deal because it did not seem fair to him that the voice of his people and, more generally, of all the other European citizens could not be regarded as necessary to properly negotiate the deal.

  Moreover, beyond the lack of transparency and democracy underwent by the European citizens, it is the whole process of negotiation and communication between the states parties that Paul Magnette criticized. Again, in his speech at the regional parliament of Wallonia, he notably regretted the fact that the discussions took so long and that the parliament could only partially examine the text during the negotiations.

  In other words, Wallonia defended its very own “democratic duty” and imposed its vision of democracy and international trade. Paul Magnette’s intervention was indeed so intense and so authentic that it eventually became a symbol of democracy for a great majority of Walloons and Europeans. The head of Wallonia’s government instantly gained respect and popularity and turned into a powerful defender of human rights ; the Belgian media subsequently dubbed him “Super-Magnette” and created a picture of him wearing a superhero suit – an image that has been used on anti-CETA activists’ bans.

Paving the way for a brand new worrisome dispute settlement system

  But the most controversial issue of the entire Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement is undoubtedly the tremendous change that the treaty could bring to the investor-state dispute settlement system. As a matter of fact, the Walloons were concerned by the fact that the bilateral trade agreement would make multinational corporations powerful enough to sue the European governments “if they make regulations that affect their ability to turn a profit”. With this argument, Wallonia intended to show that their concerns over CETA were particularly wellfounded. As a result, along with their demand for more democracy and for better agricultural standards, the 3.5-million French-speaking Walloons asked for changes to the investor-state dispute settlement system provisions of the EU-Canada trade agreement and also for more transparency among the tribunals that would settle the disputes.

  In addition, even Belgian Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Gus Van Harten, who is mainly well-known worldwide for his knowledge on administrative law and international investment law, reminded the necessity of preserving the jurisdiction of domestic courts in all European Union member states. “The Walloons want to see loopholes closed that they say would allow United States multinationals with offices in Canada to use the treaty to sue governments in Europe.”, Osgoode Hall law professor Gus Van Harten explained.

   After another tough round of negotiations, Belgian politicians and especially Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel and Paul Magnette finally reached an agreement with the federal government at the end of October and took the decision to drop opposition to the European Union-Canada trade deal – an agreement highlighted by the following statement : “Prime Minister Charles Michel said the heads of the regions had drawn up an addendum to the agreement that answered their concerns over the rights of farmers and governments – an addendum that still needs the approval of Canada and other EU states”. Approved by the ambassadors of all European Union member states, the “Belgian compromise”, as it is called, is a four-page text in the pact including the concerns of the Walloons and especially of the opponents, such as the “guarantee that the Belgian government will assess the socio-economic and environmental impact of CETA”.

The “Belgian compromise” or the happy ending of the CETA negotiations

   After another tough round of negotiations, Belgian politicians and especially Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel and Paul Magnette finally reached an agreement with the federal government at the end of October and took the decision to drop opposition to the European Union-Canada trade deal – an agreement highlighted by the following statement : “Prime Minister Charles Michel said the heads of the regions had drawn up an addendum to the agreement that answered their concerns over the rights of farmers and governments – an addendum that still needs the approval of Canada and other EU states”. Approved by the ambassadors of all European Union member states, the “Belgian compromise”, as it is called, is a four-page text in the pact including the concerns of the Walloons and especially of the opponents, such as the “guarantee that the Belgian government will assess the socio-economic and environmental impact of CETA”.

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  The reaction of Minister-President Paul Magnette to the compromise was obviously much awaited. “We have finally found an agreement among the Belgians that will now be submitted to European institutions and our European partners”, head of Wallonia’s government Paul Magnette said. He also added with satisfaction : “Wallonia is extremely happy that our demands were heard”. Confronted with Wallonia’s concerns, the European Commission in Brussels had no choice but to realize that “what matters is not when [the CETA signing] happens but the fact that it happens and it will happen”. “Better late than never”, as we say.

  As for Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the news with enthusiasm and eventually signed the bilateral agreement at the 16th EU-Canada summit. Although we can think that issues such as the CETA signing might have an impact on the trade relations between countries, the most important concern of such a story is that globalization is progressively changing : from multilateral to bilateral agreements, from supposedly high economic standards to restrictions on democracy, international trade is evolving and lobbying has now become the answer to these trade deals, which sometimes tend to advertise too much on the economic benefits of their amendments instead of protecting some economic sectors and democracy itself.

  To conclude, it is necessary to recognize that the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) still represents one of the most controversial transatlantic agreements, even though it has not really been as much criticized as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) proposed between the European Union and the United States. The fact that Minister-President of Wallonia Paul Magnette delivered a speech in order to denounce the various problems that could be triggered by the entry into force of the free trade agreement raised the awareness among all European politicians and citizens. Wallonia’s opposition to CETA is a good example to show that massive activism and lobbying on European legislations can actually pay off and have a real impact on the final political decisions undertaken by the European institutions in Brussels. The CETA negotiations also represent an interesting case since the protests against some measures in the deal have been actually heard and have led to a satisfying EU-Belgium compromise at the very first attempt of Wallonia.

  Nowadays, lobbying is a democratic right designed to reflect the interests of the civil society, Non-Governmental Organisations or multinational firms, which by this means aim at taking part to the legislative process of the different European directives and rules and at presenting their views on public decisions. In the case of Wallonia, Paul Magnette succeeded in raising the awareness and putting public pressure on CETA in order to preserve the interests of its region. This is an example showing that lobbying is not always about promoting the interests of big multinational firms but also about protecting the European values and the socio-economic rights of citizens.

Virginie CARDOSO

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