Commentary by Gabriella AKTINS
Whilst the negotiation of an EU-Canada trade deal may seem of little significance to the UK in the light of Theresa May’s first EU summit as Prime Minister, the difficulties the EU is facing should be a grave warning for the UK. Currently, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada (CETA) is at jeopardy as it is being blocked by the Wallonia’s government. The message which should be clear to the UK is that when all EU members are required to ratify a treaty, the voice of one can halt the progress of the many.
What is CETA?
CETA is a proposed free-trade agreement between Canada and the EU which would effectively abolish 98% of trade tariffs between Canada and the EU. Negotiations were concluded in August 2014 and the agreement only needed to be approved by the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament and all EU Member States. Normally, EU trade deals do not need to be ratified by legislatures. However, in light of adverse publicity and arguments that governments and institutions, such as the EU, were entering opaque trade deals in which the public had little or no say, the EU decided in July that 38 national and regional parliaments would be given a vote on CETA.
Who are the Walloons?
Belgium is comprised largely of two main linguistic groups: the Dutch-speaking Flemish community comprising 59% of the population and the French-speaking Walloon population comprising 41% of the population. Belgium’s parliamentary system of governance is divided into four regions and communities: Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels-Capital (a bilingual enclave within Flanders) and the German-speaking Community of Belgium. The division within the country have resulted in disputes and deadlocks between the competing regions. Most recently this resulted in the 2007-2011 political crisis, during which time Belgium was without a government for a total of 541 days, beating the previous record of 249 days held by Iraq.
Why can they block the deal?
Whilst Belgium’s federal government supports the deal, it has been unable to give its consent because of opposition from the Socialist-let Walloon parliament. Whilst it may seem that the Walloons are blocking the CETA deal specifically, in reality it appears that the block is more of an opportunity to air general discontent about the wider issue of free trade.
Paul Magnett, the Walloon minister-president declared that he has nothing against Canada but wants to curb the power of corporations in future EU trade agreements with the US and other countries. Indeed, he acknowledged that it was chance which brought the opportunity, but articulated that ‘the moment we are given this power, it’s logical we use it’.
Why is this worrying for the UK?
Any exit deal which the UK negotiates with the EU will have to be ratified by the 38 national and regional parliaments. Local and national elections in recent years have highlighted the rising power of the right wing. Brexit can be viewed as a culmination of such right-wing sentiments. The EU will want to use the UK as an example to discourage other right wing parties from espousing the ability to leave the EU unscathed. More importantly, there are some countries which will want to use Brexit to show their populations that exiting the EU is not an option. Take Spain and its Basque Country and Catalonia, both of which are vying for independence.
Further, the fact that Walloon has been able to block this deal so late in the process should raise alarm bells for the UK. An EU diplomat conceded that ‘We should have seen it coming…No one thought it could develop into such a deadlock in the final mile. But it did.’
Gaining acceptance for a deal from 28 nation states is one task, to gain that same acceptance from 38 national and regional parliaments is quite another.