The Politics of Wallonia’s Resistance to Canada Trade Deal

Socialist lawmakers in the south of Belgium oppose a treaty that is supported by the right-wing national government.

Regional legislators in the south of Belgium are persisting in their opposition to a European free trade accord with Canada.

I reported here earlier this year that a majority of lawmakers in French-speaking Wallonia are against the treaty, which proposes to eliminate tariffs on almost all goods and services traded between Canada and Europe. The pact is projected to raise transatlantic trade by more than €25 billion per year.

The Walloons worry that European countries will be pressured into weakening their environmental standards and labor laws as a result of the treaty. (Fears that are overblown.)

But there is also a political dimension to their resistance.

Political dimension

The Walloon legislature is dominated by the French-speaking Socialist Party, which controlled the national government until 2014. Elections that year brought a coalition of right-wing parties to power, most of them Flemish.

Flemish politicians (from the Dutch-speaking north) are outraged by the Walloons’ intransigence. Geert Bourgeois, the regional prime minister and a member of the ruling New Flemish Alliance, calls their resistance to the trade pact bad for Belgium’s economy and bad for its reputation.

“We’re the laughing stock of Europe,” he said.

Left-wing pressure

It’s not just the Belgian right that’s frustrated. As Didier Reynders, the Belgian foreign minister and a member of Prime Minister Charles Michel’s French-speaking liberal party, has pointed out, socialist-led governments across Europe, including in France and Sweden, all support the deal with the Canadians.

French president François Hollande has summoned the Walloon prime minister and local Socialist Party leader, Paul Magnette, to Paris to try to change his mind.

Canada’s left-wing prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has warned that a failure to ratify the pact would issue the “deplorable” message that the EU is heading toward an “unproductive path” in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the bloc this summer.

European trade ministers are due to meet in Luxembourg next week to discuss the situation. It’s unclear if Belgium can ratify the treaty without the support of all its regional legislatures.