The Walloon Impasse
Just over a century ago, ‘plucky little Belgium’ stood against the might of the ‘Hun’ by refusing Germany free passage to invade France. Earlier this month, the plucky and even littler Belgian region of Wallonia took a brief stand against the combined might of the EU and Canada, by blocking the CETA trade pact under the federal provisions of Belgium's constitution. Yesterday, however, Wallonia gave in, 'extremely happy that our demands have been heard'. Viewed in the blear light of Brexit, the Walloon impasse, however temporary, suggests it won't be straightforward to get any deal past the 27 EU rump nations. But it also highlights blindspots in both Brexiters' and Remainers' thinking.
The UK government, now unequivocally pro-Brexit, is also enthusiastic about CETA. It lobbied for the deal and would have signed with its EU partners on 27 October had the Walloons not welshed. For some reason, despite the Brexity brouhaha over other European treaties, British sovereignty doesn't seem to have been an issue in the CETA talks, even though ceding sovereignty is central to the agreement. CETA, like the proposed TTIP deal with the United States, includes an 'investment protection and dispute settlement system which matches the expectations of the EU’s and Canada’s citizens and businesses'. Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) courts operate outside state parties’ jurisdiction while allowing private investors to extract damages if public policy damages their interests. Before Wallonia delayed it, Liam Fox had agreed to let Parliament debate the treaty, though not before it would have been signed. CETA was corporate Europe in industrial-strength, sovereignty-dissolving form.
Paul Magnette's Walloon Socialists had good reason for rejecting CETA. As the TUC has pointed out, ISDS proceedings enabled the Dutch insurers Achmea to sue the Slovak government for renationalising its health service. Labour rights are under-protected, with no sanctions in case of breach. A House of Commons briefing paper reported earlier this month that 'CETA is the first trade agreement where the EU has agreed to open up its services markets using the “negative list” approach. This means that all service markets are liberalised except those explicitly excluded.' Healthcare services are excluded, but CETA also contains a 'ratchet clause', which means that if a country liberalises the market in a particular service it is 'obliged to maintain that level of market liberalisation and cannot reverse it'. Magnette, a political science professor, went so far as to quote Kant's Perpetual Peace in denouncing the negotiations' secrecy.
Meanwhile, the plucky Walloons won plaudits from quarters that have expressed dismay at Brexit. Few of those sympathetic to Magnette's refusal were inclined to see June's referendum as a case of plucky little Brexitlanders taking a stand against the European juggernaut. Some Remainers still see the union as a beacon of liberalism cowing squat-browed nativists, but that aspect of the European project owes more to the non-union Council of Europe and Court of Human Rights (Tory opposition to 'Europe', as Theresa May's career indicates, often targets these institutions rather than the EU, particularly when it comes to protecting workers' and refugees' rights).
The EU itself hearkens more to the thrum of neo than paleoliberalism, as a corporate behemoth that embraces external protection through the common external tariff, sharp gradients between the way it treats EU and non-EU citizens, levels of opacity that rival Kant's Prussia, and a long-running institutionalised racket for landowners and farmers, particularly French ones. This week brought further evidence of the union's guiding rationale as the handmaiden of corporate capitalism, when the commission caved in to industry lobbyists over restricting a potential carcinogen, acrylamide, in foodstuffs; the chemical has been labelled 'extremely hazardous' by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The CETA impasse arose only because Jean-Claude Juncker, the autocratic commission president, was thwarted in his wish to bypass the treaty's ratification by EU member states.
Magnette had been making conciliatory noises before he dropped his opposition to signing the accord yesterday; Belgium’s five regional parliaments were expected to ratify today. The main concession wrung by Magnette is judicial review of CETA’s ISDS provisions. A Belgian academic lawyer, Pierre d’Argent, has called this a 'sword of Damocles hanging over CETA'; time will tell. For now, Remainers can persist in their fancy that the EU champions progressive internationalism, while ‘hard Brexiters’ forge common cause with Walloon Socialists. Such are the strange hybrids brought forth when global capital has a fling with bien-pensant liberalism in one case, and with nationalism in the other.