All Hail Wallonia!

The decision by the Wallonia regional government to refuse to sign up to CETA has been greeted by a fascinating set of reactions. They range from ‘hooray, it’s David and Goliath’ to ‘obscure region blocks necessary trade deal for socialistic reasons’.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement would link the EU market of 500 million people to Canada through a free trade zone. It’s estimated that £500m worth of tariffs would be abolished. Canada is extremely anxious to get this deal- the first big agreement between the EU and a large external trading partner. Its widely accepted that CETA is a trail blazer for the much more hotly contested TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which will give huge powers to global corporations to overturn national and European environmental, business and social regulations and standards.

CETA has been five years in the making. Like TTIP, its negotiations have been conducted without the participation of the EU Parliament and in some secrecy. According to War on Want, a huge critic of both CETA and TTIP, CETA includes the toxic investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which allows companies to sue governments over any new law or policy that might reduce their profits in future. ‘In a public consultation held in Europe, over 97% of respondents rejected the introduction of this new power for business. Yet the EU has gone ahead with it anyway, and CETA will introduce ISDS not only for Canadian companies but also for any US firms with offices in Canada (which is most of them.’

Canada and the EU say  this controversial investor-state chapter, which would allow investors to sue governments directly has been ameliorated. There will now be a  permanent tribunal with members appointed by the two sides and an appeal process to reverse potential legal errors. Also added was tougher language that, Canada and the EU say, would enshrine the right of governments to regulate.

There are three startling things about the present stalemate brought about by Wallonia. They are : that Wallonia has been presented as a tiny basket case ; that the operation of a democratic right of a region or other Parliament to refuse to be part of a larger, possibly harmful scheme, has been alternately rubbished and threatened, and that the reasons for Wallonia’s effective veto have been un-examined in the public discussion of its stand.

The truth is that of the five regions of Belgium,Wallonia- regularly described as ‘obscure’ in UK reporting – comprises half the territory, with a third of its population. It has a Socialist government led by Professor Paul Magnette (law, Cambridge). It has been criticised by, among many others, the right wing leader of Flanders, Geert Bourgeois,for making Belgium ‘ the laughing stock of the whole world’ for exercising its democratic rights. And it has done this in order to protect its farmers and dairy industry, to maintain strong consumer protection and strong labour laws and to highlight the potential for unassailable corporate power over national (and EU) government should CETA be implemented.

Small is indeed beautiful,Wallonia. We should support this region and its government because it is pointing the way to a different future, one not entirely ruled over by global corporations untroubled by little things like the people and their democratically elected institutions.

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