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A woman walks on a graffiti reading ‘No CETA’, referring to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 13, 2016. (FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS)
A woman walks on a graffiti reading ‘No CETA’, referring to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 13, 2016. (FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS)

Canadian, EU officials hope to save CETA after Belgian region rejects deal Add to ...

When the Canada-European Union trade agreement was unveiled three years ago, it was hailed as a historic opportunity for Canada and a model for trade relations around the world.

But now the fate of the deal rests here in a picturesque part of southern Belgium called Wallonia that’s littered with relics of past economic promise – rusting steel mills and closed coal mines.

Few in Wallonia’s capital of Namur have much time for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, as it’s called. For them, the deal threatens agriculture, tramples on local decision-making and leaves them even more vulnerable to the vagaries of multinational corporations. And they shrug when asked if it’s fair that because of Belgium’s federal system, Wallonia has an effective veto over a sweeping trade deal that encompasses more than 500 million people, stretches across 29 countries and involves $15-trillion in economic activity.

Related: Canada, EU try to sway Belgium’s Walloons from derailing trade deal

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“It’s not an issue of size,” says Wallonia’s First Minister Paul Magnette. “We are a parliament with constitutional rights and we can ratify or not an international treaty, so we have the same power, the privileges, as a national parliament and we simply make use of those powers.”

On Friday, Wallonia’s parliament did just that. By a vote of 46 to 16, Members of Parliament approved a motion instructing Belgium’s national government not to sign CETA in its current form. It’s a fateful decision since the EU has said CETA must be approved by all 28-member states.

This is the poor half of Belgium, home to 3.5 million people where unemployment hovers around 16 per cent and the local economy is reeling from a decision last month by Caterpillar to close a plant, putting 2,000 people out of work.

The local economy was at the forefront during two hours of debate on Friday. MPs from all parties insisted that they were not against trade, or Canada, or Europe. “We say yes to trade with Canada. No to the text as it stands,” Socialist MP Olga Zrihen said.

There were a few voices of dissent, notably from the centre-right Mouvement Réformateur party, which called CETA an opportunity for Wallonia.

“There will be consequences if CETA fails,” said Virginie Defrang-Firket, an MR MP. Wallonia will be isolated and cut off from our friends in Canada, she said. Rising her voice above the heckling, she added that Wallonia’s leftist coalition was turning the region into “the Cuba of Europe.”

This wasn’t the first time Walloon politicians had rejected CETA. Parliament adopted a similar motion last April, and only revisited the issue because of intense lobbying by Canadian and European officials who produced an “interpretive declaration” that promised to clear up any misunderstanding about how CETA would be applied. Those efforts, which continued right up to Friday morning, left MPs more exasperated than convinced and led many to decry the backroom dealing.

“Every two hours, every three hours we receive papers changing the text,” Ms. Zrihen said after the vote. “Is it really a correct, a responsible, political, way of doing things?”

Mr. Magnette said the interpretive declarations were meaningless because they weren’t binding. “We get elements of an interpretive declaration every day and I really appreciate that but it’s not a very transparent, not a very open game. So I would simply plead for going around the table to put things clearly and transparently.”

The vote in Wallonia also revealed the deep divisions in Belgium between the prosperous Dutch-speaking north and poorer French-speaking south. Belgium has six parliaments divided along regional and linguistic lines. To date, the two French-speaking parliaments – Wallonia and the Federation of Wallonia-Brussels – have passed motions rejecting CETA, whereas the agreement has been backed by the national parliament and the legislature in Dutch-speaking Flanders.

The standoff means the Belgian government cannot sign on to CETA when European ministers meet next week to approve the agreement. That meeting was supposed to be a prelude to a special Canada-EU summit in Brussels on Oct. 27 where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would sign a final copy of the agreement. That trip now looks doubtful.

Canadian and EU officials are scrambling in the wake of Wallonia’s vote to try and salvage the deal, but the feeling among many in Namur is that CETA is a long shot at best. They are adamant that their decision wasn’t a sudden rejection, or an attempt to voice some kind of displeasure at Europe.

“We’ve said already more than one year ago to the representatives of the European Commission and also to the Canadian representatives that we had some problems with the text as it stands,” Mr. Magnette said. “We have asked for a reopening of the discussions, not of the whole thing but we have a precise list of things which for us are not clear enough in this treaty. We haven’t had answers so far.”

Ms. Defrang-Firket was less hopeful. “I hope it isn’t dead. But Wallonia has sent a bad signal,” she said after the debate.

For Hélène Ryckmans, an MP for Ecolo, which is similar to the Green Party, CETA requires almost a complete overhaul. For example, she said the agreement uses a “negative list,” meaning it applies to every part of the economy unless otherwise stated. That differs from a so-called “positive list,” which would specify only areas where the treaty applies, something she believes would better protect the economy. She’s also concerned about the treaty’s creation of an Investment Court System, a dispute-resolution process that allows companies to challenge domestic regulations. And she said CETA could force Wallonia to pay compensation to companies injured by a local regulation.

“CETA is much more than chocolates and wine and cheese,” she said.

For people like Michel Cermak, Friday’s vote was a victory. He’s part of an umbrella group called CNCD 11.11.11, which has been fighting CETA for months, including organizing a 15,000-strong march against the treaty last month in Brussels.

“Today one of the elected assemblies in Europe has listened to these voices and has said we just cannot accept 1,600 pages [of CETA documents] as they are with a yes or no vote,” he said. Mr. Cermak pointed to mounting opposition to CETA in Germany, France, Spain and Austria, a signal that the agreement has tapped into deep-seated discontent.

“There is a general feeling all across Europe that the people we vote for have less and less power,” he said. “People want to take back control, take back control of regulation and protecting their rights. And stopping CETA and [a similar proposed deal with the United States] is just the first step of this process.”

There are wider lessons for Britain and the EU in Wallonia.

Since Britain voted to the leave the EU last June, Prime Minister Theresa May has indicated the country will push for a so-called “hard Brexit,” a complete break from the EU followed by a new trading alliance. The Canada-EU deal has been cited repeatedly by Brexit backers as an example of the kinds of deals Britain can conclude once free of the constraints of the EU. But that now appears less certain and senior ministers in Ms. May’s cabinet have expressed concern at how easily the Canadian deal has been derailed.

And for the EU: If it can’t reach a deal with Canada after seven years of negotiation, how could it reach one with the U.S. or Britain? That’s a sentiment Canada shares.

“If ‎Europe is incapable of signing a progressive trade deal with a country like Canada, this will send a clear and unfortunate signal,” said Alex Lawrence, a spokesman for Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland. “CETA remains a top priority for Canada. We are still working with our partners in Europe to conclude this agreement.”

It will take a lot more work to convince people such as Stéphane Pigeon. He stood with a group of farmers outside the Walloon parliament on Friday. A few had arrived in tractors, parking them in front of the building and plastering the vehicles with anti-CETA posters. Some carried flags, others held signs, and most wore badges condemning the deal. When the debate started, they crowded at the back of the parliamentary chamber, watching carefully.

“The situation for farmers is already difficult,” Mr. Pigeon said, noting that the number of farms is shrinking annually. For him, CETA offers no future, only more imports, lower prices and fewer farmers. When asked if there was any chance CETA would be beneficial, Mr. Pigeon shook his head. “No. CETA will be the death of our agriculture.”

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