Wallonia’s “no” to CETA is a warning against scattered regionalism

Wallonia’s “no” to CETA is a warning against scattered regionalism

While much has been said about what the EU should do to better connect with citizens, shift decision making processes back to lower levels, and increase its popularity, there is a danger that remodelling its processes and making them more inclusive decreases the bloc’s capacity to act and be a credible partner for its allies. CETA is a showcase.

In the end, after several seesaw changes and emergency meetings, the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada was signed – the Walloon regional parliament representing a mere 3.5 million people or 0.7% of the EU population, gave its final consent. How the whole EU could be held hostage by one region – not even a state – has much less to do with the debate about the pros and cons of free trade but with how EU decision-making got caught up in internal power struggles within Belgium that prevented the federal government from signing off on the deal. But how could  this situation occur in the first place, which factors contributed to making it happen, and what does it say about the the EU’s capacity to act in the future?

The inner-Belgian conflict lines

Wallonia praised itself as Gallic village fighting bravely against the dangers of international trade and globalization. Yet the underlying factors are far more profane: Walloon Social Democrats hijacked the deal to protest against the neo-liberal leaning federal government under Prime Minister Charles Michel and to stop the rise of the Marxist “Workers’ Party of Belgium”.

In the end, the Commission, the Belgian federal government and Wallonia reached an agreement by offering some compromises in the direction of the Walloon regional government. Michel, who suddenly had the chance to negotiate with the big players directly, got a lot of pressure from the EU-institutions in Brussels, became a stylite of CETA-opponents, and found himself on a level playing field with other European governments.

The institutions trying to connect with citizens

The Walloon regional parliament only had a say in CETA because the European Commission is trying to connect better with the citizens of Europe.

On the one hand, this led to both fewer proposals for regulations on the European level in the drafting process and a stronger involvement of actors outside of European institutions – parliaments, pressure groups, citizen initiatives etc. On the other hand, it resulted in the ratification process either handing back responsibilities to the national level or integrating the national level further in the decision making process.

In this spirit, Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, pressed for considering CETA as a mixed agreement, i.e. not as the sole responsibility of the EU-institutions. It has to be democratically ratified not only by the EP, but by all national and in some cases regional parliaments, to get a stronger popular negotiation mandate.

The ramifications and risks of this development are not to be underestimated. While a better connection with citizens is of absolute importance for the survival of the EU (as it has to be considered a legitimate decision-making body in the member states), in this case, the way it was executed complicated the whole process even further and led to the opposite. The European Parliament suddenly played a lesser role in terms of democratic legitimacy, while the other institutions found themselves plunged into a credibility crisis.

Future risks

One could describe this as a one-time-only hiccup due to a very particular alignment of political developments on national and regional levels that, in this special constellation, grinded the EU-decision making processes to a halt. But the EU-institutions were more or less helpless in trying to resolve the issue, even though all major figures entered the negotiations with Mr. Magnette.

The broader picture is sinister. The EU manoeuvred itself into a vicious cycle, in which the citizens deny it any democratic legitimacy to the effect that the actions allowed by the treaties lead up to decision-making within a scattered regionalism without results. The EU, at the moment, is simply not a reliable international partner. The much needed stronger involvement led to even more cumbersome decision making processes, whose outcomes – if any – are unclear for citizens affected, investors and other states. The debate regarding which competencies should belong to what level of decision-making is thus just as pertinent to how to reconnect with citizens as it is to how to stay a capable global player.

Engaging and reconnecting with citizens is an urgent task for the EU to obtain legitimacy, yet shifting competencies to the national level or constantly re-negotiating the mandate may hamstring it. The economic and political credibility of the bloc is pitted against the mistrust among the citizens against it, leading to squabbling with consequences that could be dire for the entire EU economy. CETA is only the culmination of a development gone wrong: the FTA with Singapore is being negotiated at the European Court of Justice, while the trade deal with Colombia and other South American nations is provisionally in place for years, yet not all member states have ratified it yet.

The European Union is thus well-advised to re-think its future course of action if it wants to avoid a rerun of this drama. New forms of participation, a new distribution of competences, or a revision of the modus operandi for trade negotiations, all would be viable options. Otherwise, the lack of a sense of unity and purpose will diminish the EU’s ambitions to be a truly global player, as it will continue to be entangled in impossible exercises.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Florian Anderhuber

Florian is a policy analyst at the European Parliament working in energy and financial market regulation. He specialises in Asian, Eurasian and European political risk analysis, speaks German, English, French, Mandarin, Russian and Vietnamese and pursues a PhD in Southeast Asian studies at Bonn University. The views expressed on this site are Mr. Anderhuber’s and do not reflect those of the European Parliament or any groups within.