Skip to main content

Wallonia’s politicians bristle at questions about how a small region in Belgium can thwart a trade deal that took seven years to finalize.Christian Kober 1 / Alamy Stock Photo

Protesters such as Michel Cermak gathered early outside the Wallonia parliament buildings on the bank of the river Sambre close to where it joins the Meuse. Nearby, a row of tractors stood along the road and several farmers held their children and waved small flags.

They had come on this chilly Friday in mid-October to watch Walloon politicians debate and vote on the Canada-European Union trade deal, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. "There are so many concerns about CETA it's hard to pick a few," said Mr. Cermak, who is part of a group called CNCD 11.11.11 that has organized mass protests against CETA for months in Belgium. He then listed a dozen problems with the treaty.

Most of the Members of Parliament inside agreed. After a two-hour debate the MPs voted 46-16 not to back the trade deal.

Related: Freeland's CETA theatrics nothing less than calculated posturing

Related: Canada-EU deal in question after Belgium declines to sign on

Related: What's Wallonia's deal? A primer on its role in CETA's crisis

This ancient city has seen plenty of battles . It has been overrun by countless armies for 2,000 years and its giant Citadel has been captured by all the Great Powers of Europe. It is now an often-neglected part of Belgium, where unemployment hovers around 16 per cent, coal mines have closed and steel factories stand empty. Last month, Caterpillar announced plans to shut down a nearby plant, putting 2,000 people out of work.

The vote on Oct. 14 was not the first time Wallonia had rejected CETA. Parliament passed the same motion in April, and two other Belgian parliaments have also voted against the deal. But the Walloons have been singled out. If CETA dies, Wallonia will be blamed.

There have already been angry words and pointed questions about how a small region in Belgium can thwart a trade deal that took seven years to finalize, involves more than 500 million people and covers $18-trillion in economic activity.

Wallonia's politicians bristle at such talk. It is not their fault, they argue, Belgian law gives the country's six regional and linguistic governments the power to veto international agreements. And it is not their fault the EU required CETA to win approval by all 28 member states.

"We have the right, the legitimacy, to agree or not to treaties," said Hélène Ryckmans, an MP for the Ecolo party. "It's why we use this right to say we must care, we must protect the welfare of our citizens."

Mr. Cermak said Wallonia is only expressing a growing unease across the continent about the political system. "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 on regulation and protecting their rights. And stopping CETA and [a larger trade deal with the United States] is just the first step of this process."