Because of it turbulent history of conflict during the 19th and 20th centuries, Belgium has often been called the “Battleground of Europe.”
Lately, the country’s southern Wallonia region is trying desperately to make sure that the European nation lives up to that unflattering nickname.
Yes, tiny Wallonia, dubious home of the Battle of the Bulge and to the majority of Belgium’s French-speaking population, is once again waging war.
But this time around, the conflict is not being carried out with cannons and rifles, but, rather, with an almost-successful 11th-hour ambush against the rest of the European Union and its now-faltering negotiations with Canada to sign a bilateral free-trade pact.
After diligent analysis and skillful diplomatic horse trading on both sides, the treaty, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), was finally about to be approved when mostly rural Wallonia hoisted up a barbed wire barricade of protectionism and isolationism to slay its passage.
Of course, there were other crinkles in the passing of CETA, which will economically unite Canada’s 10 provinces and the 28-member EU, making for a gargantuan developed world trade bloc of nearly 550 million consumers.
But, for the most part, these wrinkles had all been ironed out during an eight-year negotiation process.
And then, on Oct. 14, Wallonia, with a total population of just 3.6 million, almost managed to singlehandedly undo nearly a decade of bilateral talks by voting to block the accord.
Walloons, it seems, objected to the idea of making their lackadaisical dairy farmers and other agricultural producers compete in a globalized marketplace.
The socialist-led Wallonian government also raised (for the most part, unjustified) concerns over protections for the environment and its (mostly unskilled) blue-collar laborers, many of whom had already lost their jobs when the region’s once-thriving smokestack industries collapsed as the iron and coal industries lost steam at the start of the century.
In the end, Brussels made last-minute concessions to Wallonia, and the treaty was saved, but just by a hair.
The Wallonian impasse is just one more example of how an over-crammed Europe has become far too cumbersome to be able to negotiate as a single body (and part of the reason that the British have decided to pull out of the union).
This albatross-like unwieldiness has kept the EU from being able to hammer out free trade accords with emerging markets such as China, India, Australia and Brazil.
The EU hasn’t even been able to reach a trade agreement with the United States.
It is worth noting that virtually every other EU national member wanted to sign the treaty with Canada, and the majority of citizens in Belgium’s other two regions were on board as well.
The deal will provide a much needed boost to Europe’s waning economy.
Wallonia was the main culprit for the near-collapse of CETA, but it is also demonstrative of a more serious ailment within the European Union.
If Europe is to operate as a single body, it must become more agile politically.
It is absurd that one small region of one small Europe country could have derailed an entire, well negotiated trade pact.
The fact that CETA required the unanimous support of all 28 EU governments to come into effect is at the root of the bureaucratic gridlock.
The good news is that CETA now seems to have passed the final hurdle, despite the renegade Walloons.
The bigger question, however, is whether Europe will be able to plow past its federalist bonds and streamline its future negotiations with the rest of the world.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]