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opinion

Getting bogged down in Wallonia at the end of a long campaign is not exactly an unfamiliar experience for Canadians. Belgium's French-speaking region is, after all, where our soldiers gave 280 lives capturing the city of Mons at the very end of the First World War, and where the Ardennes forests made the Battle of the Bulge a deadly slog for some Canadians in the final weeks of the Second World War.

Still, nobody was really ready for tiny Wallonia to be the scene of an 11th-hour ambush in the fall of 2016, at what many thought was the end of an eight-year struggle to link the economies of Canada and the 28 countries of the European Union in a pact known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. But there it is: CETA has been stopped in its tracks, for the moment at least, by the most rural of the three regions in Belgium's own awkward federal system.

It's a disconcerting reminder of the political fragility of our time: As angry forces calling for isolationism and closed borders rise from the fringes, the liberal ambitions of entire continents can be unseated by the roar of a mouse.

Read more: Canadian trade minister walks out of EU trade talks, says deal is 'impossible'

Opinion: EU should have told Canada years ago it was moving the CETA goal posts

Analysis: EU flexibility will ensure CETA passes, despite Wallonia's protests

Much of the democratic world is constructed of awkward federations of provinces, states and regions, their citizens' well-being dependent on compromises eked out over difficult negotiations to allow products, services and people to move across their borders.

These compromises are becoming harder and harder to hold together, as this year's British referendum vote to recommend leaving the EU made painfully clear – but they have never been easy.

Canada's 10 provinces and the EU's 28 countries were never going to be easy to merge; this was evident in 2008, when the talks began.

The benefits of doing so seemed pretty self-evident: Canadian companies getting tariff-free access to 750 million consumers; Canadian consumers getting access to better, cheaper and far more multifarious goods from the world's largest economy; governments getting access to superior services (such as garbage collection or data processing) from 29 countries; and a doorway to future freer movement of people and things. There is no other way to achieve free trade with Britain (and there will be no way to do so quickly if it leaves the EU, which I suspect it won't).

When Wallonia first voted to block CETA on Oct. 14, it cited a laundry list of anti-trade reasons, but fundamentally because the region's dairy farmers feared a more competitive market – and because a toxic form of isolationist politics had arrived. While Britain's isolationists tend to see the EU as a left-wing plot to impose regulations and foreigners on them, the anti-trade voices of French-speaking Europe, including Wallonia, view the EU as a right-wing plot to impose unfettered capitalism upon them. Neither view corresponds to reality.

On Friday, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke of the Wallonian impasse as a wider failure of European federalism: "It is now evident to me – evident to Canada – that the European Union is incapable of reaching an agreement, even with a country with European values such as Canada." Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued the same denunciation a few days earlier, questioning "Europe's usefulness" and the entire value of the EU in a post-Brexit environment.

They should have remembered that the last time Canada and the EU tried an economic merger, in 2005, it was the fractures in Canadian federalism that scuppered it. In fact, it was largely the opposition of another French-speaking dairy-farming lobby, this one in Quebec, that the deal died in early negotiations (it was also opposed by Ontario, which wanted to keep giving government-service contracts only to local firms). The Europeans were furious with Canada's apparent inability to unite around a simple goal.

And that remains the problem, as Ottawa and Brussels struggle to lasso their fractious federalisms together long enough to sign an agreement. Canada's 10 provinces actually have far more barriers between them than the EU's 28 countries do (it is still not legal to import wine across some provincial borders in Canada) – our federalism is in many ways weaker than theirs.

Before we get too angry at Wallonia, we'd better make sure our own isolationists aren't getting ready to rise.