Namur, Belgium | Reuters — The Belgian fortress city of Namur, besieged by European armies down the centuries, issued a declaration of war on the global economic order Friday, with a vote to reject a planned EU-Canada free trade agreement.
The parliament of the region of Wallonia voted in its seat at Namur after a similar decision by the parliament of French speakers in Brussels earlier this week, results which risk killing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).
And yet the deal is supported by Ottawa and all 28 EU national governments, including Belgium’s.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel’s government was racing to find a solution, although officials stressed that it was the local governments rather than parliaments that would have the final say.
A number of those had not responded. A spokesman for the prime minister of Belgium’s German-speaking Community told Reuters Friday that the local government had no plan to send its approval to Brussels now that Wallonia had rejected CETA.
Leaders of the German-speaking Community, largely made up of territory annexed as reparations from Germany after the First World War, have also been critical of the Canadian deal.
France also stepped up its pressure on its small francophone northern neighbour by inviting Wallonia’s premier Paul Magnette to talks in Paris later on Friday with his fellow Socialist, French President Francois Hollande.
By contrast, Austria ended weeks of wavering, its chancellor saying his country would not stand in the way of a deal.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters he knew it was going to require hard work right to the very end.
“But I’m confident that there are so many strong European countries, like France… Germany is fully on board, and others, that this deal is going to make it through,” he said.
EU trade ministers meet in Luxembourg on Tuesday to vote on CETA and want unanimous backing for it ahead of a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday and a visit, if all goes well, by Trudeau a week later.
Belgium’s federal government favours the pact and one member of Michel’s liberals told Namur lawmakers they were making Wallonia “the Cuba of Europe”. However, Michel cannot approve CETA without support from assemblies representing the country’s three regions and three linguistic communities.
Walloon premier Magnette, whose power base is ailing post-industrial cities that once made Belgium a global manufacturing hub, said Canada was a friend but that CETA undermined standards for citizens and shifted too much power to big corporations.
Namur, dominated by a 17th-century citadel on the confluence of historic great trading rivers the Meuse and the Sambre, can expect to be besieged by anxious Europeans in the coming days.
EU leaders say Europe’s commitment to free world trade is at stake, including further planned deals with Japan and the U.S.
Also paying attention are British officials whose hopes of a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU will also require unanimous support across the bloc — including the stubborn Walloons.
“Cuba of Europe”
The two regions of Wallonia and Brussels are home to 4.5 million people, less than one per cent of the 507 million European consumers the EU-Canada free trade deal would impact. Even within Belgium, they are outnumbered by Dutch-speaking Flemings, whose representatives have already backed CETA.
But Walloon lawmakers said during Friday’s debate that it would harm local farmers, lower environmental and labour standards or give multinationals power over public policy.
“Just because we are friends with Canada, that doesn’t mean we can’t tell them we don’t agree on something,” said premier Magnette, before the chamber voted 46-16 against approving CETA.
Virginie Defrang-Firket, from Michel’s liberal party, warned: “You will isolate Wallonia, make it the Cuba of Europe.”
Some lawmakers wore stickers condemning CETA and TTIP, the even more contentious proposed EU-U.S. trade deal.
CETA supporters say it will boost the EU economy by 12 billion euros (C$17.5 billion) a year and create jobs.
Centrist Michel, a French-speaker, and his main allies from the Flemish right, face opposition on many issues from the left-led Walloons and some observers see the CETA vote as a tactic in a campaign to maintain state spending in the struggling south.
But resistance to new trade deals is strong, with the former coal and steel powerhouse of Wallonia just one of many European regions where economic globalization, with its shift of jobs to Asia, is mistrusted.
Just last month, U.S. construction equipment maker Caterpillar announced plans to close a plant just 30 km from Namur, cutting some 2,000 jobs.
— Reporting for Reuters by Philip Blenkinsop. Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels, Francois Murphy in Vienna and Leah Schnurr in Ottawa.