44 legislators in the French-speaking south of Belgium may have just derailed an entire EU trade agreement with Canada.
A majority voted in the Walloon parliament on Thursday to call on the government not to sign the proposed trade pact.
That need not immediately scuttle the treaty. Other European Union nations can still join.
But if everybody else signs the agreement at the EU level, it would still need to be ratified by national legislatures. If the Walloons persist in their resistance at that point, there is no template for what happens next. No regional parliament has ever held up a European treaty.
The deal with Canada, which eliminates tariffs on almost all goods and services, is projected to raise transatlantic trade by more than €25 billion per year.
It is seen as a precursor to a potentially more far-reaching agreement with the United States that is currently under negotiation.
Critics say both treaties would benefit corporations more than consumers and are worried they could be used to weaken environmental and labor standards in Europe.
Proponents maintain that such claims are overstated. Consumer protections are largely exempt from the texts. To the extent that regulations between Europe and North America are harmonized, this would help European companies sell their products and services just as much.
Geert Bourgeois, prime minister of the economically more vibrant Flanders, said he was troubled by the vote in Wallonia.
“This not only causes us to lose face, but this is a direct threat to our economy and our prosperity,” he told reporters during a trade mission to India.
Bourgeois criticized the Walloons for going back on their commitment. Lawmakers previously endorsed the trade negotiations.
But that was before the last election, when the left lost control at the federal level. Right-wing parties from Flanders, including Bourgeois’, now govern in a coalition with the French-speaking liberal Mouvement réformateur, which does not have a majority in its own region. Left-wing parties still dominate the Walloon legislature.