Belgian politics were again world news and this time not for breaking the world record for a political impasse. This time a small region of 3.6 million people almost blocked a free trade deal that encompasses more than 500 million EU citizens. How did it come to this?
To understand the veto from Wallonia against the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), one must understand the current situation in Belgium. Paul Magnette (Parti Socialiste, PS) is currently the Minister-President of Wallonia and during the last stage of negotiations last week, was threatened from three sides. First of all, there is a power struggle within his own party with former Belgian Prime Minister and PS President Elio Di Rupo. The federal and regional elections are coming closer (2019) and Magnette wants to show that he is the top dog within the party. Secondly, the PS is feeling threatened from the left by PTB (Parti du Travail Belgique), a Marxist political party. In the latest election polls, the PS dropped 7% to 24.7% and the PTB went up with almost 10% to 16.3% coming from 5.5% in 2014. Thirdly, the PS is not represented in the liberal-conservative federal government which is dominated by Flemish parties.
It was easily foreseeable that they would finally get to an agreement in the end. Of course, in retrospect, this might seem a bit blasé, yet it is just how the Belgian political – some would say ‘messy’- framework is constructed. We make a lot of fuss about something and say that it is non-negotiable but in the end we come up with a strange agreement that makes everyone look like a winner (I invite you to have a look at our current federal system, try to make sense of that). One can describe it as something that is ‘terrible to accept but too good to refuse’ and the final decision is postponed to some indefinite time and place in the future. This is what exactly happened with CETA. If the issue regarding the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) is not resolved, then the Walloon, French speaking, and Brussels Parliament still have the possibility to reject CETA. Mr Magnette wanted to show that Wallonia cannot be ignored by the federal government and still has its foot in the door. On the other hand, he wanted to show that the PS is still a strong party, always to be considered in Wallonia (if not also on federal level) and that he can be the future leader of the PS during the coming federal and regional elections in 2019.
This is something that is important to keep in mind for future Brexit negotiations and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Belgium is viewed as one country, which it is, but one cannot ignore the differences. When looking at trade with the UK, it is Flanders that is the main exporter (86%) and importer (89%) compared with Wallonia, which accounts for only 12% of imports and 8% of exports to the UK. Also, in recent years, Flanders has voted right, while the left of the political spectrum has dominated Wallonia in the last decades. So there are different economic considerations at play, as well as different political dynamics, in each of the Belgian regions.
Why is this important you wonder? Isn’t it only Belgium that needs to agree on international agreements? In theory yes, but Belgium has a very complicated system with six Parliaments all with their own competences. Just like with CETA, the Parliaments will have to agree on the Brexit conditions. If the Brexit settlement is to be ratified, that means six different Parliaments need to vote in favour in Belgium alone. Then there will be just the small matter of 26 other Member States to worry about…