Could a few million Belgians veto the Canada-EU trade deal? It hasn't happened yet

We don't know the exact words spoken by French President François Hollande when he met with the leader of the regional government in Belgium that just voted to effectively veto the Canada-Europe trade deal. But here's a strong guess: How can we make you change your mind?

Rejection by 2 Wallonian regional legislatures sets off weekend of diplomacy to get CETA back on track

Is this graffiti in Brussels this week a sign of things to come? Two regional governments in Belgium have voted against Canada's free trade agreement with the European Union - perhaps its biggest stumbling block yet. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Oh to have been a fly on the wall in Paris Friday night.

We don't know the exact words spoken by French President François Hollande when he met with the leader of the regional government in Belgium that just voted to effectively veto the Canada-Europe trade deal.

Nor do we know what Canada's trade envoy, Pierre Pettigrew, said next, in his own meeting with Wallonia's Minister-President Paul Magnette.

But here's a strong guess: How can we make you change your mind?

"The pressures are very strong," Magnette said on his way out.

A Canadian official said Pettigrew's chat was "frank" and "valuable."

At stake is not simply a seven-year negotiation process to drop tariffs, open up new markets and agree on common standards for billions in annual trade. 

It defines, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Ottawa Thursday, the essential usefulness — or uselessness — of the European Union's trade policy. 

Rejection by two of five regional governments in Belgium over the past week seemed to block the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA).

In Belgium's federal system, regions must agree.

But a closer listen to Magnette suggests something else: the search for a way out.

"We must say 'no,' to negotiate. Not a 'no' to scupper everything and set the cat amongst the pigeons, but 'no' to put us in a position of power that will allow us to improve social norms, environmental norms and to win more respect for public services," he said.

More negotiation. Yes, you've heard this before.

Another draft?

When Trudeau's Liberals took over, CETA negotiations were supposed to have concluded. But they stalled during legal scrubbing.

It became apparent the only way forward was a rework of the investor-state dispute settlement clauses, something International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was "happy" to do to make CETA more progressive.

It wasn't enough.

Farmers hit the streets to protest against CETA in Namur, Belgium Friday, as the Walloon regional parliament voted to reject the trade deal. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Over the last few weeks, faced with wavering support among European centre-left parties, Canada's been working with the EU on a supplementary "joint interpretative declaration" to clarify how it protects a state's right to regulate environmental or labour standards and protect public services.

That additional text was supposed to be finalized next Tuesday, when trade ministers from all 28 member states gather in Luxembourg to greenlight a signing ceremony for Oct. 27.

Enter the Walloons — as Belgians from this region are known — with tractors in the streets warning about threats to their regional ways and suggesting Flemish Belgians gain more than they do from CETA.

Because nothing is simple, the two votes in the Wallonian legislatures this week are caught up in the fragile dynamics of Belgium's complex politics. 

The federal government (and prime minister) is Liberal — right-leaning, pro-trade deal.

Regional socialist governments provide strategic opposition.

The former EU trade commissioner who negotiated CETA was a Flemish Liberal: Karel De Gucht. In a Dutch interview, he called on the foreign minister to sign anyway, forcing Walloons to fight in constitutional court.

Canada has said the Wallonia votes aren't binding.

French socialists, led by Hollande, were supposed to persuade the Walloons — the way German social democrats were helpful in bringing Austria's social democratic chancellor around.

But although Walloons speak French, they don't necessarily like, or take direction from, the French.

Hard line or soft sell?

It's not clear the frustration Trudeau articulated Thursday helped — nor the warning of Freeland's parliamentary secretary David Lametti, who told legislators in Wallonia there would be "consequences" if they reject CETA.

Was the tough tone unproductive?

It came in stark contrast to Freeland's sunny campaign over many months which saw the minister winning over reluctant votes in Germany and Austria for her "gold-standard," progressive deal — deliberately distancing it from contentious trade talks with the U.S.

Trudeau seemed to abandon tough talk Friday, shifting to saying CETA will succeed, despite Wallonia.

Trudeau says the CETA deal will go through

6 years ago
Duration 2:03
Trudeau says the CETA deal will go through

Not shocked, but disappointed

"If I was a Canadian, I could completely understand why they would be fed up with this situation," said David Martin, a British member of the European Parliament working to rally social democrats across Europe for CETA.

Martin, speaking from the trenches of the politicking in Brussels as a member of the international trade committee, said he was not shocked, but disappointed the Walloons said no.

He thought the interpretative declaration that leaked out last week was enough to address concerns. And if it wasn't, it can be revised.

"I wonder if there is any substance to the objection, or whether we're now in a bit of a political drama — that people are just trying to grab the spotlight," he said.

'50-50 odds'

So what now? Europe's trade ministers meet Tuesday. Belgium says others are wavering too.

"I've heard that if they can't solve the Belgian crisis ... there may be no option but to postpone," Martin said. 

Another option might be for Belgium to consider a "constructive abstention" while other countries approve signing: not block it, but stay quiet.

"It's definitely not dead," he said — he still expects his committee to consider it in December, Europe's parliament to ratify it in January, and a provisional application of most of the deal by early 2017.

Activists gathered in front of the French agriculture ministry Tuesday. Belgium insists it's not isolated - three or four other countries still aren't happy with the Canada-EU trade agreement. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

"Holding an agreement hostage for rent-seeking purposes is not unusual in EU trade policy," writes David Kleimann, a researcher of of EU trade law and policy at the European University Institute.

"But in this case it seems to be more of a regional-mood issue rather than a self-interested rational move."

When Italy held up the EU's agreement with South Korea, a way was found to buy them off, he said.

Full ratification will eventually require votes in over 30 states and regional legislatures. The EU may want all 28 signatures in hand. So, it could delay, again, until Belgium sorts itself out.

"This kind of gamble is not entirely unprecedented," he said, offering 50-50 odds of a negotiated solution. "But the schedule for CETA signature and provisional application is in danger now."


Janyce McGregor

Senior reporter

Janyce McGregor joined the CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2001, after starting her career with TVOntario's Studio 2. Her public broadcaster "hat trick" includes casual stints as a news and current affairs producer with the BBC's World Service in London. After two decades of producing roles, she's now a senior reporter filing for CBC Online, Radio and Television. News tips: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca


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