Flag of Wallonia

Belgian Federalism and CETA

Published: 29 October 2016
The recent eleventh-hour collapse of a trade deal between Canada and the EU followed a veto in the Parliament of Wallonia. Prof Peter Bursens of Universiteit Antwerpen explains that constitutional, ideological, strategic and even personal factors scuppered the deal. 
It must have been five years since Belgium has been covered so extensively by the international press. Just like at the time of the 2010-2011 burdensome government formation, the international community tries to grasp the political and constitutional peculiarities of the Belgian federation. In this contribution a set of issues are clarified to understand how Belgium – and in particular Wallonia - dealt with CETA ( Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement).
The plan was to sign the trade agreement during an EU Canada summit on October 27. As CETA was defined as a mixed agreement between the EU and the member states, a unanimous consent in the Council, on top of European Parliament (EP) approval, had become necessary. The Belgian signature in the Council needs to come from the federal prime minister, but he can only sign when all regional governments allow him to do so. However, a mix of constitutional, ideological, strategic and even personal features prevented a smooth signing.
Let’s start with the constitutional provisions. The Belgian consecutive constitutional reforms have created a double subnational level: communities, which are competent for ‘person-related’ policies such as education, housing and health, and regions, which decide over ‘territory-related’ policies, such as agriculture, environment and … trade. On top of these far-reaching competencies, the communities and regions also hold the right to conduct foreign relations for all matters that they possess domestically (the so-called in foro interno, in foro externo principle). In addition, the constitution stipulates that all levels, i.e. federal, regional and community, are equal to each other, meaning that their respective laws and decisions cannot be mutually overruled. From this also follows that international actions that involve competences of more than one level must be approved unanimously by all involved levels. This has resulted in a very complex mechanism to deal with policy-coordination and representation in EU policies. More particularly, also the signing and ratification by Belgium of EU external trade agreements is subject to the veto-power of all - federal and subnational - governments, under the control of their respective parliaments. With respect to CETA, the government of the Walloon Region and the government of the French-speaking Community (the latter a.k.a. the federation Wallonie-Bruxelles) simply used their constitutional right to veto a Belgian signature. Some consider this quite ironic since the Walloon government now exploits a constitutional right … that they only reluctantly accepted when the Flemish government put it on the table of the state reform negotiations almost twenty years ago. 
To understand why the Walloon and French-speaking governments acted in this way I first need to address the ideological dimension. One of the features of the peculiar federal, some would say confederal, structure of the country is the absence of an encompassing federal electoral constituency. Even the members of the federal parliament are elected by two separate regional constituencies, which resulted back in the 1970s in the separation of Belgian-level political parties into Flemish and French-speaking parties. Over the years, the diverging economic and cultural interests have empowered different ideologically positioned parties in the different parts of the country. In Flanders, economically neo-liberal and ethically conservative centre-right parties (including the nationalist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) or New Flemish Alliance) dominate the parliament, while in Wallonia, the centre-left social democrats have always been - and still are - the dominant political group. At this moment, this results in a N-VA led centre-right Flemish government and a Parti Socialiste (PS) led centre-left Walloon government. The federal government is currently centre-right: on the Flemish side composed of the same parties that control the Flemish government, but at the French-speaking side composed of the French-speaking liberal party, which also delivers the prime-minister. This ideological divide is a first explanation of the diverging Walloon position on CETA. The Flemish parties are ideologically and pragmatically very enthusiast about CETA. The centre-right parties wholeheartedly support free trade. Karel De Gucht, who as a former commissioner negotiated CETA, and EP liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt are members of Flemish coalition partner Open VLD. In addition, Flanders represents the vast majority of Belgian export and foreign investment. On the contrary, the French-speaking PS is a classical left wing party mainly representing societal groups such as unemployed and low-skilled workers who perceive themselves to be on the losing side of globalisation. Being critical of private dispute settlement mechanisms and international competition for particular professions then becomes and understandable position. 
Next, from a strategic point of view, the positon of the Walloon and Brussels government is quite logical. I already referred to the ideological positions of the parties on either side of the language border. More in particular N-VA and PS take opposite positions on nearly all crucial policies - ranging from economics to law and order. N-VA explicitly wanted to govern without the PS which they consider to be ‘a brake on the Flemish economic progress’. PS, from its side, accuses N-VA of destroying solidarity between the North and the South of the country. They both cultivate an enemy image of each other before their respective electorate. On top of this, and quite recently, the PS has experienced severe electoral competition from the extreme left PTB (Parti du Travail de Belgique) which fiercely opposes CETA and pulls the PS further to the left of the political landscape. The crucial difference between PS and PTB seems to be that the PTB rejects globalisation (and therefore European integration) while the PS is highly critical of the current way the EU deals with globalisation without rejecting the EU as such. As this nuance is not visible to the electorate, a firm overall Eurosceptic position is quite strategic for the PS. 
Finally, a personality trait seems be at play as well. The current leader of the Walloon government is Paul Magnette, who used to be professor of political science at the French-speaking Brussels university ULB. His research agenda concentrated on EU politics and he wrote several articles on the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. One of the issues he addressed was … the role of national parliaments. He now seems to practice what he preached: a more substantial involvement of national parliaments (and therefore in Belgium, automatically, also the regional parliaments) in EU policy-making. The argument is that a politicisation of national politics will create a Europeanised national political arena in which alternatives of EU level policies can be discussed. For Paul Magnette, this would not only help to democratise the EU, it would also possibly trigger opposition to the neo-liberal economic consensus at the EU level. In this respect, it is also unfair to say that he took the EU hostage at such a late stage in the CETA negotiations. Magnette already presented his political positions in this way more than five years ago. In addition, he had already warned the Belgian prime minister in the Spring of 2016 that the Walloon parliament had substantial concerns regarding CETA and that he intended to let the parliament take up its role fully – in stark contrast to the Flemish parliament which hardly debated CETA at all. 
Paul Magnette seems to have succeeded, at least with respect to the issue of legitimacy: the EU has finally entered Belgian politics and has forced other parties, in particular the N-VA, to take position on EU policies, opening the door for a Europeanised campaign of regional, national and European elections in 2019.