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What really prompted Wallonia’s feisty standoff against CETA?

By: | November 2, 2016

The Belgian regional government had it right all along on the controversial Canada-European Union trade agreement.

Marilyn Reid
Cutting through the spin on CETA is a series examining the reticent nature of a treaty that threatens Canada’s economic sovereignty

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The French-speaking region of Wallonia accounts for more than half of Belgium's land mass. Google Earth.

Just a week ago it looked as though CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the European Union and Canada, would not go through because Wallonia, one of Belgium’s French speaking regional parliaments, refused to accept it.

After intense negotiations, however, the deal was salvaged. On Sunday Trudeau and his EU counterparts signed CETA, and on Monday Canada introduced legislation to begin the provisional ratification process.

CETA may soon be provisionally applied, though without the investor-state offshore tribunal syste which would allow corporations to sue governments for uncapped amounts. That authorization must now await two European court rulings on whether the corporate courts are in line with the European constitution. In Germany a coalition of civil society groups has mounted a legal challenge. The Belgian government, pushed by Wallonia, has also committed to taking the issue to the European Court of Justice.

On this side of the Atlantic, last week a Canadian group led by Paul Hellyer, former senior cabinet minister in the Pearson and Trudeau governments, also mounted a legal challenge of CETA’s constitutionality.

CETA must also survive the two year ratification process, first in the European Parliament and then in 28 national and 10 regional parliaments. During the interim there will be elections in countries where CETA is not popular and a possible referendum on CETA in Holland. It’s reasonable to expect European resistance to CETA to accelerate.

Defending democracy

The Walloon government’s unique contribution to the resistance has been to not just publicly object to CETA, but to compellingly frame their objections in democratic rather than economic terms.

In his Oct. 16 parliamentary speech Wallonia Minister-President Paul Magnette lent support to civil society legal challenges to CETA by making it very clear that the continuing privatization of justice through CETA’s new Investment Court System was something that the Walloon Parliament could not accept.

His speech also raised concerns about the Interpretive Declaration. This is the feel-good statement the EU and Canada have recently added to CETA in an attempt to assure their citizens that CETA sufficiently protects public services, labour laws and the right to regulate from corporate legal challenges. The Walloons, like others, doubt its legal strength. They want to see much more precise legal wording, so that the Interpretive Declaration will have power equivalent to that of the main CETA treaty.

Whether or not that will happen is still unclear. The EU Commission will certainly be under enormous pressure from the European public to tighten up the wording.

Media cheerleading for free trade

Unfortunately, most Canadians remain unaware of Wallonia’s central concerns because our mainstream media trivialized the leader’s position by portraying the region as a “tiny” one that suddenly rebelled in obstinate isolation, largely over Walloon farmers’ worries about competing with Canadian farm exports.

First of all, “tiny” Wallonia represents 55 percent of Belgium territory. And secondly, the Walloons have the support of 3.5 million Europeans who signed a petition opposing the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and CETA. They have the support of those 320,000 Germans who descended into the streets in various cities last month to protest CETA. And they have the enthusiastic support of their own people as this video demonstrates.

Third, this was not the unexpected and shortsighted rebellion against Canada that our prime minister and his team would like us to believe.

For more than a year the Walloons have asked both the European Commission and Canada, through the Quebec government, for discussion over their CETA concerns. Their requests were ignored. The Walloons have also been frustrated in their attempts to gain full access to the Interpretive Declaration. Right up until two weeks ago the Walloon Parliament was still receiving parts of it in dribs and drabs.

Finally, the media’s characterization of the Walloon rebellion as being primarily about agriculture is distorted. While allowances for CETA’s impact on farmers in Wallonia was a part of the salvage package, the driving force behind the rejection of CETA has always been, in the words of Premier Magnette, “to defend the idea of bilateral treaties that set high standards and values.”

This includes questioning the negotiation process.

“If we have nothing to hide in those trade agreements, if CETA is genuinely good for small and medium-sized enterprises, if CETA is good for farmers, if CETA is good for public services, if CETA is good for growth, then why is it necessary to negotiate in secret? Why don’t we have the confidence to do it before citizens?” Magnette asked in his Oct. 16 speech.

Probably more than any other government, the Walloons have considered their citizens’ objections to CETA.

“This democratic vitality of our own population, we cannot ignore it,” said Magnette.

From the moment the document was released in September 2015 Walloon parliamentarians have listened to diverse experts, and then extensively and publicly debated the pros and cons of CETA.

By comparison, Canadian Parliament’s exposure to CETA has been largely through fragmentary questions by individual MPs, and almost all have focused on economic issues. Canadian politicians have consistently avoided talking about the democratic ramifications of CETA. Why is that?

As to the likelihood of an unbiased debate and discussion taking place on both the pros and cons of CETA within caucuses, I doubt very much this has happened. I strongly suspect the average MP, like most Canadians, has only a superficial idea of what CETA is really about.

Constitutional fragmentation

Canadians have been delivered clichéd superlatives affirming CETA as the “gold standard of trade agreements”. Unfortunately, government analysis stops there. Neither our trade minister nor our prime minister, nor anyone else in parliament for that matter, will debate the reasons for this assessment other than to say that we cannot afford not to participate in trade agreements and Europe will be a good trading partner.

As a result, most people don’t realize how huge the difference is in the way that the EU and Canada chose to protect the independence of future governments in the CETA contract.

The EU very deliberately “reserved” or wrote in broad protections for European governments’ right to control public services, monopolies and regulations concerning water, health care, education and many other services. For many of those services and entities, the Harper government reserved no protections whatsoever or defined the protections with so little precision that there is considerable scope for corporate legal challenges.

It was left to the provinces, largely inexperienced in trade agreements, to write in their individual reservations for all of the above. According to international trade lawyer Steven Shrybman, the result is a hodgepodge of protections that differ greatly from province to province and could “fragment the constitutional landscape of our country.”

Shrybman further elaborates on this in an unpublished assessment for CUPE, saying “CETA proposals represent a sea change that would, if implemented, have a pervasive and constraining influence on virtually every provincial policy and regulatory measure now in place or that may be considered in the future.”

[CETA] is a corporate rights treaty that will straitjacket future parliaments for decades.

As for the economic arguments in favour of CETA, civil society organizations like the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have been warning us for years that the benefits would go to corporations rather than communities. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians learned this early on with our Minimum Processing Requirement concessions.

A recent study by United Nations researchers out of Tufts University confirmed this assessment: “In the current context of tepid economic growth, competitive pressures induced by CETA will cause unemployment, inequality and welfare losses.”

The Tufts study has been ignored by the Canadian government.

Prime Minister Trudeau and his team continue to pretend that CETA is a progressive trade agreement between two honourable trading partners, the EU and Canada. It is not. It is a corporate rights treaty that will straitjacket future parliaments for decades. CETA is an assault on democracy itself. And, through no fault of the Europeans, Canadians will end up being the biggest losers.

I think it is time we took off the rose-coloured glasses in our assessment of Prime Minister Trudeau. His words may sound caring, but his actions are those of a leader who is playing for the other team — the big international corporations that had such a heavy influence in writing the CETA agreement.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper set out to transform Canada. It’s beginning to look like Justin Trudeau and his team intend to finish the job.

Editor’s note: Quotes attributed to Premier Magnette come from his speech to the Walloon Parliament on Oct. 16 and have been translated from French.

Marilyn Reid writes from Conception Bay South. She is a member of Citizens against CETA and the Council of Canadians.

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