The Walloons are not to be taken lightly. Belgium’s French-speaking self-governing southern region could stymie a decade-long effort to seal a Canada-EU trade deal.
Wallonia is Belgium’s Quebec, a French-speaking territory that accounts for over half of the country’s land and a third of its people. The majority of Dutch-speaking Flemish reside in Flanders, in the more prosperous north.
And while Belgium’s federal government supports the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), it needs its three regions to support it. Wallonia does not.
A senior European diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Canadian Press that the threat posed by the Walloons is the greatest obstacle to getting CETA done.
A summary of the free trade deal that was leaked recently aims to appease CETA opponents, sources say—notably the restive Walloons who are threatening to block the agreement.
The five-page summary is supposed to accompany the deal’s final signing later this month in Brussels.
Stamped “Final Draft,” it addresses contentious portions of CETA—including the investor-state dispute resolution mechanism—that were rewritten to save the deal from being rejected in Germany and France.
The Walloons must ultimately approve the deal for it to pass through the current process, which hinges on each EU member state supporting it.
The diplomat said the summary was written in a way that explains the deal in reassuring, easy-to-read terms.
“We hope that this could help the Belgian government to convince its parliament that the deal is really a good one and the concerns are not really founded,” the diplomat said, adding that it was also aimed broadly at politicians and members of civil society who oppose the deal.
EU trade ministers are to meet next week and their approval of CETA is needed for a planned Canada-EU summit to take place later in the month where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his EU counterparts are expected to sign the agreement.
International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has been to Belgium twice to sell the deal, and her parliamentary secretary, David Lametti, is focusing specifically on the Walloons.
Lametti met with a delegation of Walloon legislators in Canada this past weekend, and he will go back to the region later this week for more meetings with politicians there, said a spokesperson for the department.
Lawrence Herman, a Toronto-based trade lawyer with Herman and Associates, said he believed the five-page summary will be “very close” to what will be released before Trudeau goes to Brussels for signing.
“Hopefully it will allow the EU Council and Parliament to at least agree on provisional implementation for starters,” he said.
Provisional implementation means that as much as 90 percent of the deal would come into force early next year—even without the ratification of each of the EU’s 28-member countries, as well 10 regional governments, including the Walloons of Belgium.
That approach has often been cited as an end run of sorts around the possibility of some member EU states blocking the deal if their parliaments don’t ratify it.
Romania and Bulgaria have been upset with Canada in the past because Ottawa continues to impose a visa on its travellers coming to Canada, an impasse that still hasn’t been resolved. Internal opposition within Austria has also caused angst in Canada.
The visa talks “are really going in the right direction to find a mutually acceptable compromise. So we are quite confident that Bulgaria, Romania and Austria will be on board,” said the European diplomat.
“Our main concern now really is Belgium.”
In April, the Walloon Parliament passed a motion to deny the federal executive full powers to sign CETA. Wallonia’s reticence around the trade deal is linked to broader doubts about globalization that extends to their Dutch countrymen in the north where there is a movement demanding a referendum on the agreement.
Walloons’s Parliament is concerned about the investor state provision of the deal that lets companies sue governments for lost profits in cases of discrimination against the foreign firm. There are also fears CETA could undermine public services and flood the country with Canadian pork and beef, to the detriment of local farmers.
CETA is seen as a litmus test for the EU, as a trade deal with Canada is expected to be easier than virtually any other country, or as Freeland put it in June: “If the EU cannot do a deal with Canada, I think it is legitimate to say: Who the heck can it do a deal with?”
With files from The Canadian Press