Bill Jamieson: Brexit and the Great Wallonia Question

A Belgian region's opposition to an EU trade deal with Canada is a bad omen for the UK's own negotiations writes Bill Jamieson

Wallonia voted last week against a landmark free trade deal with Canada, after seven years of negotiations. Picture: Getty Images

All hail Wallonia – scourge of faceless global corporations, environmental defender – and mighty spanner thrower in the Brexit works.

The independent-minded region of Belgium has a will of its own. To the consternation of those hoping for a ‘soft Brexit’ UK trade deal with the EU – and the EU itself - it voted last week against a landmark free trade deal with Canada – the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

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So why is this so important? When has Canada ever threatened anyone? What has its trade deal with the EU to do with us? And what or who is Wallonia?

CETA aimed to eliminate 98 per cent of tariffs between Canada and the EU. It is the EU’s biggest trade deal yet. And negotiations with Brussels have stretched over seven years.

Some UK politicians see CETA as a possible model for a Brexit deal with the EU. It does not involve EU-style free movement of people. But it will not allow the degree of EU market access that UK services currently enjoy.

The threat to CETA’s passage may have encouraged UK ‘Remainers’ in their critique that negotiating a trade deal will prove to be every bit as complex and vexing as they have warned.

But it is as likely to strengthen the hand of those pushing for a ‘Hard’ Brexit: the EU on this form is no friend of free trade, it is over-run by protectionist interests and the UK would be better off outside the Single Market while Brussels sorts out the mess it is now in.

Belgium’s federal government needs the consent of all the country’s regional entities to sign international trade deals, and the EU needs unanimity of its 28 member states – and 38 entities if regional parliaments like Wallonia are included.

The news has sent even Remainers scrambling for a map. Wallonia is one of three regions that make up Belgium. It has a population of 3.5 million. It is home to 80 per cent of the French-speaking community in Belgium and is also home to a small German-speaking community. In total, the region embraces five languages.

It is governed by the Walloon parliament. The 2014-2019 legislature is a centre-left coalition and the current Minister-President is Paul Magnette. Its regional autonomy extends even to foreign policy, including the signing of treaties. In many domains even the Belgian federal government is not able to sign an international treaty without the agreement of the Walloon Parliament. On Tuesday EU trade ministers and the European Commission, fearful of the world-wide reputational damage, gave the Belgian region until the end of this week’s EU summit tomorrow to give its consent to the deal.

But yesterday the region’s prime minister Paul Magnette rejected this deadline. The agreement, he said, was now “unravelling” and that a few months were needed to “reopen the negotiation”.

Let Scotland’s new Brexit secretary Michael Russell and External Affairs minister Fiona Hyslop take note. They are set to travel to Brussels for discussions with MEPs on Scotland’s place in Europe and to explore a separate Scottish trade deal with the EU.

Good luck with that. As if the UK government’s own hopes of an amicable Brexit securing unanimous agreement from all of the EU member states and regional parliaments was not enough, the prospect of a separate nexus of trade arrangements for Scotland distinctive from that of the UK takes us deep into a game of three dimensional chess with ever-changing rules – and the board vulnerable to up-ending in mid-play.

The CETA deal includes harmonised regulations, sustainable development clauses and access to public sector tenders. But it is opposed by groups, including environmental activists, trade unionists and Leftist critics elsewhere in the EU.

Walloon MPs say CETA favours Canadian firms and they want more safeguards for Belgian farmers. They also want clear safeguards on human rights and sustainable development, and protection for farmers, including maintaining the ban on hormone-treated beef.

But Canada may now be running out of patience, having first started negotiations with the EU back in 2009. Said Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau: “If we find in a week or two that Europe is incapable of signing a progressive trade deal with a country like Canada, then who does Europe think it can do business with in the years to come?

“In this post-Brexit [vote] situation, where there are a great many questions about Europe’s usefulness, if Europe cannot manage to sign this agreement, then that sends a very clear message. Not just to Europe, but to the whole world, that Europe is choosing a path that is not productive for its citizens or the world. And that would be a shame.”

His concerns were echoed by European leaders, increasingly concerned that the EU’s reputation as a trading bloc will be irretrievably damaged by failing to sign a deal with a close ally.

One senior EU diplomat said: “It is not just about EU-Canada, it is about the future of EU trade policy.”

Meanwhile opponents fear CETA will be used as a model to push through the more controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between Europe and the US. And many SNP stalwarts share deep misgivings over TTIP which they regard as a global “race to the bottom” serving only the interests of a wealthy elite.

The Labour MEP David Martin, who sits on the European parliament trade committee, said the Wallonian response to the CETA should send shivers down the spine of Brexit negotiators in London.

“Britain’s final deal with the EU will too be subject to the whim of 38 national and regional parliaments. As we have seen in Francophone Belgium, public opinion in the rest of Europe is volatile on questions of trade, and deluded Brexiteers will get a shock if they think our partners are going to give us an easy ride.”

But many of the “deluded” will retort that this only proves what has long concerned them about the EU: that it is at the mercy of forces that are opposed to free trade and that its instincts are protectionist.

Add to this recent threats by Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, that Brussels will play hardball and Britain will be “made to pay” for exit lest other anti-EU forces across the continent are given encouragement. But what does it say about the character and ethos of the EU that continued membership rests on the threat of punishment for attempting to leave?

The SNP administration may look on Wallonia with sympathy and seek to cheer it on. But if all regional parliaments behaved in the same way there would be little of a “Single Market” left to speak of and Brussels would become even more sclerotic than it already is.

If a trade deal with a friendly country like Canada cannot be reached after years of negotiation, what does it say about the EU as a coherent economic bloc and its aspirations to be an economically successful global power?