Wallonia's veto in trade deal about everything but Canada: Don Pittis

French-speaking Belgians know and love Canada. But the country's complex politics make Wallonia an intransigent bastion of hard-left politics in a pro-trade Europe.

Arcane Belgian politics gives left-wing voice rare veto power over European trade

The Flemish north of Belgium, with its ports and high technology, favours free trade, but under the country's federal system both regional governments must approve important deals. (Reuters)

Everyone calls it the Canada-EU trade deal, but in almost every way, European opposition to CETA really isn't about Canada at all.

Understanding the motivation — and the disproportionate clout — of Belgium's French-speaking region that stands in the way of the deal requires some understanding of the strange politics of a country more divided along linguistic lines than Canada.

"Of course there are no hostile feelings against Canada in Belgium, especially not in French-speaking Wallonia," says political scholar Marc Hooghe from Belgium's ancient university town of Leuven.

Like Canada, but different

My family lived in Belgium for a year, and while the country is often compared to Canada because of its bilingual and bicultural history, it quickly became apparent to us that the differences were dramatic.

Now, as the French-speaking part of the country, Wallonia, throws up what seems to be an impenetrable roadblock to a Canada-Europe trade deal seven years in the making, those differences are at the heart of their overwhelming power to stop the deal in its tracks.
While there are many political groups across Europe opposed to CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), French-speaking Belgians are the ones with the clout to stop it. (Karol Serewis/Getty Images)

Beginning to understand Belgium requires a bit of history.

 At the start of the last century, French-speakers ruled the roost in Belgium. French was the language of politics, of education, of high culture.

Blessed with coal, iron, and an industrious workforce, Wallonia was the country's industrial heartland, its capital French-speaking Brussels.

Extreme split

But by the 1960s that had changed. As the power of metal-bashing industries began to fade, Belgium saw a cultural shift not unlike Quebec's Quiet Revolution, but the group standing up to demand their rights were not French-speakers, but the Dutch-speaking citizens of the northern, Flemish, part of the country.

When the split came, it was extreme. The country was divided in three. Populous Brussels, though traditionally French, became a bilingual national capital region ruled half and half by French and Dutch speakers.
On Friday Canada's International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland walked out of talks with members of the government in Wallonia. (Reuters)

Outside Brussels, the Flemish north (traditionally called Flanders in English) was declared strictly Dutch-speaking. The French-speaking south adopted the traditional regional name Wallonia, with its own parliament in the beautiful fortress city of Namur.

During our stay, my wife was associated with now Dutch-speaking Leuven. But to send our child to school in French we had to live south of the linguistic dotted line near Louvain-la-Neuve, the newly built French-speaking university town.

Suddenly the tables were turned. The down-trodden Flemish became the country's technological elite, with close links to booming Holland and Germany. Its modern port cities were hubs of European trade. 

Wallonia was left with strong trade unions and high unemployment, says Canadian scholar Daniel Béland, who has studied Belgian federalism.

"Wallonia is more the old left, the traditional working-class left," says Béland, Canada chair in public policy at the University of Saskatchewan. "Of course this type of left is influential in other countries in Europe, but in Wallonia it rules."

Just as in parts of the U.S. Donald Trump's anti-trade message has connected, in economically depressed regions like Wallonia voters don't see trade deals as a good thing, Béland says.

Almost absurd

And that matters, because in Belgium important national deals, including this one, need the support of both regional legislatures. Almost absurdly, the party that holds veto power in Wallonia is not part of the government in Brussels.

"For several decades in a row, the Francophone Socialist Party was part of the ruling coalition at the central level," says Béland. "But now they are no longer part of that coalition so there is a sense that they have lost some of their clout, at least at the federal level."

At the University of Ottawa, André Lecours has been studying Belgium for nearly two decades. He says the French-speaking socialists feel like a powerless minority and so are glad to exercise that veto power.
A protest in the Wallonia region outside the regional parliament in Namur, Belgium last week, where people fear free trade deals will dismantle environmental, labour and social standards. (Reuters)

"In Wallonia this is described as a treaty that will serve the interest of Flemings much better than Walloons and they're probably right," says Lecours.

In Leuven, Marc Hooghe agrees.

"Even now, if you look at where do multinational corporations go if they want to invest in Belgium, they have a clear preference for the northern Dutch-speaking region," says Hooghe, pointing to Bombardier's operation near Bruges. The ports are in the north, he says, the trade unions are not as strong, and education levels are higher.

A bigger struggle

In that way, he says, the Walloon's veto is part of a domestic struggle between Belgium's two linguistic communities.

But it's also about the coming U.S.-Europe trade deal. The Francophone Socialist Party is the champion of anti-free trade thinking that continues to exist in opposition parties across the continent and in Canada. Its veto gives it a say that other hard left parties no longer have.

"(They fear that) this gives way to abandoning all our socialist priorities in Europe," says Hooghe, who says the real objection is to giant corporations using trade deals like CETA and its U.S.-Europe equivalent TTIP, now under negotiation, to overwhelm European values.

"Both have been combined into this monster of free trade, getting rid of all environmental standards, all social standards," he says. "CETA is being sacrificed to stop TTIP."

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More analysis from Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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