MAGNETTIX VERSUS THE EU EMPIRE

Tuesday, 25 October 2016
Paul Magnette and Martin Schulz declaring that they await new proposals by The European Commission on CETA

The rejection of the CETA trade deal with Canada and the cancellation of the EU-Canada summit have sent a terrible shockwave through EU institutions and beyond. They are paying the price of ignoring the complex Belgian political reality. For years, we have sought an answer to the infamous Kissinger question of who to call when you want to speak to Europe. It seems the answer is the Walloon Parliament,” commented the British Conservative MP, Syed Kamall on 21 October. The statement was made a few moments after the Canadian Trade Minister, Chrystia Freeland, on the verge of tears, announced the “end and failure” of talks with the Walloon Minister-President, Paul Magnette, concerning the lifting of Wallonia’s veto of the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Just a week before, on 14 October, the Walloon Parliament vetoed the trade deal with a clear majority of 46 votes against 16 and one abstention, after a debate during which Green, Socialist, Christian Democrats and Far Left MPs said it would harm local farmers, lower environmental and labour standards and give transnational corporations too much power over public policy, especially through arbitration procedures. The day before, the Parliament of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation also voted against the CETA by 68 votes to 23 with one abstention. 

How could parliaments representing just 4.5 million inhabitants block a mega-trade deal between a block of 28 states (for the moment) with a population of 500 million and a country of 35 million? Part of the answer is that the EU needs the approval of all European member states, without exception. On top of that, the complex Belgian federal system requires the approval of the country’s seven parliaments to allow the Belgian Prime Minister to sign an international treaty.

Obviously, EU negotiators and their Canadian colleagues who spent seven years discussing the deal forgot about this institutional reality. Maybe they should also have read Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic War. Having listed the Gaul tribes, the great Caesar had warned that “Of all these, the Belgians are the bravest.” And for the proponents of the anti-globalization movement, who applauded the Walloon veto, including the French Green Party icon and European MP, José Bové, whose moustache reminds many of Astérix the Gaul, it is obvious that of all Belgians, the Walloons are now the bravest.

With the pressure from EU leaders, Canadian senior officials, and the corporate sector, Wallonia emerges as a new version of the small village of Armorica (the name given in ancient times to the part of Gaul between the Seine and Loire rivers) resisting the Roman Empire.

Wallonia does not stand alone in the row. Last 17 September, 70,000 people demonstrated in Berlin against the CETA and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and United States, portraying both as “Trojan horses” for multinationals and globalisation. Similar demonstrations took place on 15 October in Paris, in Poland and in Austria. Last 22 October 6,000 demonstrators expressed support for Wallonia in Amsterdam. “We are very grateful to the Walloons. Thanks to their resistance, the Netherlands can continue to call for honest and lasting trade,” declared Jurjen van de Burgh, coordinator of the TTIPAlarm coalition.

Wallonia’s allies also include Greenpeace who had called on EU Ministers to reject CETA on 18 October. Greenpeace EU trade policy adviser Shira Stanton said: “the EU trade deal is irreparable and must be stopped.” “Trade relations between the EU and other countries should adhere to basic democratic principles and help our countries achieve climate, environmental and social as well as economic goals,” she continued. Greenpeace’s objection coincides with Walloon lawmakers in one major area of concern. This is the inclusion in CETA of the Investment Court System (ICS) which gives foreign investors privileged rights and enables Canadian-based multinational corporations to challenge EU laws and standards before this ICS.

But not everybody shares the “Astérix the Gaul” heroic narrative. The largest Flemish party, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (NVA) accused the “Soviet Republic of Wallonia” of putting Flanders’ trade interests in jeopardy. Taking a similar line, the liberal party Walloon MP, Virginie Defrang-Firket said that after the 14 October vote, Wallonia would become “Europe’s Cuba.” A number of critics also stress that Magnette’s hardline approach towards CETA has been prompted by local politics.

They claim that in voicing his strident opposition to CETA, his purpose was to prevent the Parti du Travail de Belgique (PTB) far leftists and former supporters of Mao Ze Dong to appear as the only opponents to the “capitalist” CETA treaty. Last September, opinion polls in Wallonia and in Brussels showed that PTB has been increasing in popularity, with support among voters climbing to 16.5% (against 5.5% in previous polls) in Wallonia and 11.2% (versus 3.8%) in Brussels, while Magnette’s Parti Socialiste dropped from 24.9% to 15.5% in Brussels and from 32% to 24.7% in Wallonia. The Walloon vote is perhaps also the result of the sacking of more than 2,000 workers by the giant multinational, Caterpillar.

Other critics see the Walloon and Brussels MPs as kind of neo-luddites, who have committed the cardinal sin of voicing their opposition to the EU’s new gospel of globalisation and to its institutional instruments, the free trade agreements. Yet, the irony is that some of those who complain can only blame themselves for having allowed the blocking of the CETA by the Walloon Parliament to happen. Indeed, the NVA has been one of the parties whose input was the most decisive in introducing state reforms that transferred powers of ratification of international treaties to Belgium’s regional parliaments.

On Sunday 23 October, the European Council’s chief, Donald Tusk gave the Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, a 24-hour ultimatum to tell him by Monday if Belgium could or could not sign the EU-Canada trade deal. This would allow Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to decide whether or not to fly to Brussels to sign the treaty on the Thursday 27 October.

But this approach proved completely unproductive. On the same 23 October, Magnette rejected the ultimatum, declaring that such an ultimatum was “not compatible with the exercise of democratic rights.” The Walloon parliament spokesman, André Antoine described the deal as “a marmalade of texts.” Obviously, for many Walloon MPs, it was quite insane to imagine that they could make a decision in a few hours regarding such a large stack of documents.

Accordingly, on top of the original 300 pages of treaty and 1,300 pages of annexes, the Walloon MPs received three interpretative declarations and tons of emails to persuade them of the benefits of the treaty. And Magnette’s political boss, the secretary general of the Parti Socialiste and former Belgian PM Elio di Rupo, put an end to the suspense, saying “I don’t believe it is possible to act as quickly.

As a result, infuriated and disappointed EU officials had no option but to cancel the EU-Canada summit. Undoubtedly, the row will leave scars inside the EU and between the EU and many important partners.

CETA was only the first of a number of trade agreements that the EU was planning to conclude. Wallonia’s and EU civil society organisations’ opposition to CETA are a bad sign for the future of the TTIP, which raises even more hostility from these circles. The irony is that if Magnettix the Gaul and his Marxist PTB allies manage to block the TTIP as well, they will find themselves in the company of strange bedfellows, such as Donald Trump. During his presidential campaign, the Republican candidate took no prisoners and vowed to rip up international trade deals. But do they really care?

At any rate, blocking the CETA is perhaps not the end of the story but the prologue.

There is no need to look into a crystal ball to know that the next target of the Walloon Parliament and of the anti-global coalition will be the multilateral Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), which is being negotiated between the US, the EU and 22 other countries including… Canada. Already, the US administration’s archenemy but anti-global superhero, Julian Assange and his friends of the Wikileaks network are orchestrating a campaign that is likely to cause headaches and despair in Brussels and Washington. Over the last months, they have dumped lots of secret documents, which may embarrass the EU’s DG Trade officials.

Accordingly, the current TISA “would heighten risks of financial instability and handcuff government’s ability to respond to a domestic or global financial crisis at a time when everyone (except the finance industry and its political allies) agree that we need more financial regulation not less.” In addition, there could be also an outcry among employees of state owned enterprises and trade unions since TISA would accordingly impose unprecedented restrictions on state owned enterprises (SOEs) and force them to operate like private sector businesses and prepare the field for the privatisation of SOEs.

One last remark: Wallonia or the Brussels Parliament are not the only entities that may block such mega-deals. Last April, the Dutch voted by a two-thirds majority, in a national referendum, to oppose the Ukraine-European treaty for closer political and economic ties. It only takes 300,000 signatures to trigger such ballot in the Netherlands. Though non-binding, the political effect is tremendous, as proven by the fact that the Dutch PM Mark Rutte had to take the vote into consideration. I will end with one free tip: before you decide to negotiate a deal with the EU, make sure you first dial Magnettix the Gaul’s number.

François Misser
The Brussels Times