Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
Three weeks ago, not many people in Britain could have located Wallonia on a map, if they knew it existed at all.
But the decision by the Walloon Parliament, led by Paul Magnette’s Parti Socialiste, not to ratify the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada, which had been seven years in the making, catapulted the southern Belgian region onto every television news bulletin. It also plunged the European Union into crisis, saw the trade minister of a G7 nation negotiating with regional politicians in the town of Namur, and prompted headline writers to produce gems such as “99 red Walloons” and – my personal favourite – “Walloony Tunes”.
Magnette, under pressure from Marxists in Wallonia and leading a party that has been squeezed out of the Belgian federal government, saw an opportunity to raise his profile by tapping into the anti-globalisation mood that has gained support in an area experiencing steep industrial decline.
Ostensibly, the Walloons’ concerns centred on the new mechanism for settling investor-state disputes, which they claimed may override national policies, and fears that their agricultural sector would be threatened by cheap imports. However, when you consider that only 10 per cent of Belgium’s exports to Canada come from Wallonia, and only two per cent of Canada’s exports to Belgium end up there, it is difficult not to conclude that political, not practical, considerations were driving the dispute.
But this was not just a local issue: it was also a problem partly of the EU’s own making. Brussels had known for some time that the ratification process would involve the bloc’s 38 national and regional parliaments yet little attempt was made to convince them of CETA’s many merits or address their concerns. Not for the first time, the European Commission was unprepared for its will to be questioned.
Eventually agreement came, but only after Justin Trudeau’s plane had been wheeled back into the hangar when last week’s summit was cancelled. The treaty was finally signed at a re-arranged summit on Sunday, and CETA will now come into provisional effect. The contentious dispute settlement process has been passed the European Court of Justice for an opinion on its legality, allowing Magnette to claim a victory of sorts, although the deal remains unchanged. In the words of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, “not a comma has been touched.”
So, as Wallonia slips back into obscurity, where does that leave us? The EU’s credibility has taken another battering following its inability to present a united front on dealing with Russia and its confused response to the migration crisis. Meanwhile, experts are speculating what the implications might be for the UK as it seeks to establish a new relationship with the 27 nation bloc.
The EU certainly needs to re-examine how it manages trade deals, but on the latter point I believe the past few weeks have actually improved Britain’s prospects post-Brexit. Unintentionally, the Walloon socialists have done us a favour by making the free trade championing UK look an increasingly attractive partner to do business with compared to an EU unable to predict how its 38 national and regional parliaments will vote and slipping towards ever greater protectionism.
There is also lesson for everyone committed to open international commerce. Those on the left have seized the initiative on both CETA and its larger brother TTIP. Opposition to free trade deals is now widespread, not just in Europe but also growing in Britain, and we need to work doubly hard to explain to the electorate how free trade benefits everyone, both in terms of lower prices and in access to better quality products.
Finally, I noticed this week that in April 2017 eight members of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee are due to travel to Canada to observe “the constitutional and political process” and see what lessons can be learnt to “enhance the democratic legitimacy of European governance.”
I wonder if ratifying trade deals will be on the agenda?