The notion that Wallonia, a largely French-speaking corner of Belgium, could actually kill the sweeping Canada-Europe free-trade deal seems absurd.
It's like the tiny fictional European Duchy of Grand Fenwick declaring war on the United States in the 1950s novel and movie The Mouse that Roared. (Spoiler alert: Grand Fenwick wins.)
So could Wallonia (population 3 1/2 million) block an agreement that would cover the combined $20-trillion economies of Canada (population 35 million) and 28 European countries (population 500 million)?
Well, yes, in theory, it could.
But it probably won't.
On Friday, Wallonia's parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion calling on the Belgian government to reject the trade deal, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA. Under the Belgian federal system, five regional and language-based parliaments have a say in the country's foreign affairs.
EU member states were to have approved the agreement as early as next week, clearing the way for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and European leaders to sign the agreement on Oct. 27 in Brussels, the Belgian capital.
With just about anything political in Europe these days, it ain't over till it's over.
Walloon Minister-President Paul Magnette hinted as much after Friday's vote, saying: "We have to say 'no' so we can negotiate."
Arm-twisting and cajoling continue in an effort to bring Wallonia and Belgium onside. For example, Mr. Magnette was due to meet French President François Hollande, a staunch CETA supporter, in Paris on Friday. Canada also dispatched special trade envoy Pierre Pettigrew, a former Liberal minister, to lobby Mr. Magnette, whose opposition to the deal is rooted in fears it would undermine local standards and shift power to foreign companies.
Mr. Trudeau and other Canadian officials remain optimistic about the deal's prospects.
"I'm confident that there are so many strong European countries like France, as we saw yesterday, Germany is fully on board and others, that this deal is going to make it through," Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Medicine Hat.
Part of Canada's pitch to Europe is that CETA's demise would send a worrisome message to the rest of the world about the EU's ability to get things done in the post-Brexit environment.
"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 International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland.
The deal, Mr. Lawrence added, represents a chance for Canada and the EU to "demonstrate leadership on an inclusive, progressive approach to global trade."
There are number of scenarios in which the Walloon vote is not the final word.
The conventional wisdom is that EU decisions are made by consensus. That would ordinarily mean CETA can't happen without Belgium's assent, and by extension Wallonia's as well. In fact, a majority of EU council decisions actually proceed in spite of no votes or abstentions. And Belgium could abstain in this case.
More likely, however, Canadian and European officials will find a way to appease the Walloons, possibly by giving greater legal force to a joint "interpretive declaration" that would be appended to the CETA deal. Among other things, the declaration could limit the use of the deal's so-called investor-state dispute-settlement mechanism.
The EU could separately make other commitments to Wallonia, outside of CETA, to give it more autonomy.
As one government official put it: So much of the EU decision-making process is "intentionally flexible."
Consensus decision-making puts enormous pressure on countries that find themselves at odds with major powers in Europe, such as Germany and France – both of which want the deal to happen. In the end, Belgium probably won't want to risk being tarred as the country that killed CETA.
Nonetheless, anti-globalization sentiment is clearly on the rise in Europe, even if it's not specifically directed at Canada. There is growing skepticism that trade creates jobs or raises wages – in spite of reams of economic evidence to the contrary. The shifting mood is undermining support for all new trade deals and ratcheting up the risks for politicians who endorse them.
Even if the Walloon problem is resolved, CETA's path to implementation is not assured. The European Parliament must still approve the deal, perhaps early next year. Parts of the deal also require approval in the legislature of all 28 EU states.