The Walloon Impasse

Glen Newey

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.


  • 29 October 2016 at 11:34am
    monthofsundays says:
    There you go: it's either the wrong decision for the right reasons, or the right decision for the wrong reasons. Coherence would be a fine thing. PS: This read very much as the kind of detailed, careful and dull analysis of things Euro that our national press eschewed for lo so may years in favour of Boris's inventions. Tant pis.

  • 29 October 2016 at 5:08pm
    Graucho says:
    "had the Walloons not welshed" - even though the connection with Wales is a debating point, in this politically correct age I was surprised to see this.

    • 1 November 2016 at 3:56pm
      HBART says: @ Graucho
      Perhaps he should have used a less offensive term: "had the Walloons not englished," as a friend of mine once did when he spoke of getting the better part of a bargain by having "presbyterianed the other party down."

  • 30 October 2016 at 2:36am
    farthington says:
    This passionate support from EU national elites and the Brussels eurobureaucrats for CETA, before they rush off to sign up for Goldman Sachs, signs the death knell for the EU.
    And good riddance.
    Of course rampant intra- and extra-EU tax evasion in combination with the strangulation of Maastricht has already rendered the EU a moribund creature waiting for an honest autopsy.
    Criminality incarnate.
    And the decline of France as a once great power!
    The judgement of history will be remorseless.

  • 4 November 2016 at 2:15pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Although Glen Newey did a nice job in explaining this (fleeting, small) Wallonian whip-whap, both his article and some of the responses lead this particular American reader and devotee of the LRB blog site to ask some questions and ruminate on other matters.

    First of all, while I’m partial to using standard old phrases (clichés) myself, maybe we can all get away from ‘plucky (little)” and go over to something like ‘ballsy’, ‘gutsy’, ‘defiant’, or ‘evincing chutztpah’ (which, I guess, is a Yiddish cliché). Vary the cliche or hit th same ball with a different spin. In this particular connection, often-maligned Slovakia, showed true balls in deciding to re-nationalize its health services (take note of that, Trump, for Slovenia, the home of your latest fair bride, is equally small and occasionally plucky, and they use the same word to indicate themselves as Slovakia, i.e., ‘Slovensko’). That an insurance company should be allowed to sue them on this account is absurd, apparently licensed to do so via CETA rules.

    Not knowing anything about CETA, I googled it and found the first search-response on a website named If the following characterizations are true, then both the EU and Canadian officials in favor of this should be shamed into silence. Such characterizations are:

    Like TTIP, CETA could have wide-ranging effects on our lives. If ratified, CETA would:
    • Allow corporations to sue governments in secret offshore courts for making laws to protect their citizens.
    • Hand multinationals a greater role in making new regulation and thereby risk sparking a race to the bottom in standards for important areas like food safety and environmental regulation.
    • Lock in privatisation of services. CETA includes a ‘rachet’ clause which only allows governments to move in the direction of privatisation.
    • Remove protection for key UK products like Cornish pasties or Cumberland sausages.

    Being a voracious sausage eater myself, I concur with whoever thinks they need special protection.

    To Graucho I say leave “welsh” in its slang meaning alone – it’s old yet useful, and crafting a neologism to replace it seems like unnecessary hard work. Maybe the plucky residents of Wales secretly enjoy the fact that their often ignored nation has had its name infiltrate the language in such a way as bring them some attention by making people ponder etymology.

    I like farthington’s general list of enemies, but, as to his final sentence, it’s got a real Hegelian-Trotskyite feel to it – a bit over the sententious top. I don’t know if History with a capital-H is remorseless, but I often have the impression that historians who have seriously misjudged or mischaracterized some event or person dig in their heels and become remorselessly defensive about their mistaken opinions.

    Off to my breakfast sausage.

  • 6 November 2016 at 5:56pm
    Jake Bharier says:
    Yes indeed: good to avoid cliché – and stereotype. However, I wonder if Glen had irony in mind?

    • 6 November 2016 at 9:36pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Jake Bharier
      Well, that's possible. A good writer could construct a short story or even a novel almost entirely out of cliches. Would the intention there be irony or 'post-modern' flair? You notice that I myself stuck with 'plucky', but I'm not confident in my abilities as an ironist. Maybe I was just being that default thing. a "wise-guy" American.

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