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A huge victory for Belgium's CETA opponents: Paul Magnette's speech

A patched deal allows CETA to pass to the next stage. But Belgium gained important concessions. We translate the historic parliamentary speech by the Minister-president of Wallonia in Namur on October 14, 2016.

As the world gets used to the idea of a Trump presidency in the US and all the implications for minorities, women, values, fact-based policy and the basic tenets of an open and just society, Wallonia’s rearguard action on the EU’s trade deal with Canada may feel like old news. But the temporary blocking of the EU’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada now becomes more, not less significant. It is a transatlantic confirmation that open trade, shared values and similar social and environmental standards can be maintained despite elements of rejectionism on both sides. President Elect Trump and former UKIP leader Farage would claim that the new fault line is between citizens and the establishment. But this is not the full picture.

As the case of Wallonia illustrates, it is now the very idea of ‘openness’ that is a critical battleground. For the adoption and signing of CETA on 30 October the 28 member states in the Council needed to all give their signatures. Belgium could only do so with the approval from their regional and community entities. The Flemish agreed. Wallonia, followed by two others, rejected the deal (again). Yes, CETA promises to connect roughly 535 million citizens, and has been held up by 4.5 million Francophone Belgians. But that dissenting minority is roughly the size of the population of the Republic of Ireland and more populous than eight EU member states. Across France, Germany, and elsewhere, a much higher number of citizens protested against the deal.

Paul Magnette, the Minister-President of Wallonia, was not using populist rhetoric or fact-free propaganda to whip up support from a disgruntled majority through a referendum. He was expressing a democratic mandate and constitutional duty to represent his constituents. Read his speech below. Some analysts are right that the core problem here sounds like the populist war cry of ‘take back control’. But they are wrong to suggest this is not based on real and relevant issues. Read more here.

" Thank-you Mr President. My dear colleagues, this is an extremely important moment for our parliament and for Wallonia. Here, the debate is not simply over a trade agreement between the European Union and Canada. Here, the debate is about the entire philosophy of commercial exchanges and the manner in which they will be constructed over the next ten, fifteen, twenty, or even thirty years.

It just so happens that it is the CETA agreement which has brought this to light, but the discussion we’re having – beyond our friendship with Canada – is a discussion of principle at its heart, a deeply political discussion, and in some ways even a philosophical discussion about what trade actually is and how it should be managed. It is because of this, that this debate bears such great significance.

I will begin as Mr Geulette did, by paying homage from the bottom of my heart, to the quality of the debates we have held in this parliament on this subject. There are only a few other parliaments which lead such rich debates as ours has been. Yesterday, I spoke with the Irish minister for international trade who told me that her parliament is facing many of the difficulties that we are facing, and that the Irish parliament is also having a strong debate on the subject. There has also been a very detailed debate in the lower chamber of the Austrian parliament - I have spoken many times with the Austrian chancellor and he has told me the same thing: the more we debate, the more we analyse, the more effectively parliaments can ask questions of themselves. ‘The more we debate, the more we analyse, the more effectively parliaments can ask questions of themselves.’

And if there is a debate here in Wallonia... If there is reluctance here in Wallonia, it is not because we are more narrow-minded than the rest. It is not because we find pleasure in being a tiny Gallic village, and it is not because we dream of autarky. It is simply because there are two particularities to this region which are not often found elsewhere in Europe.

The first particularity is that Wallonia has always been a land of strong democracy. We have union organisations, we have mutual associations, and we have extremely active, dynamic, vigilant and mobilised associations across all the sectors.

These organisations have studied this text with much rigour: they have consulted the best experts and have taken many opinions into account, and have in fact nourished our own work. We cannot ignore such democratic vitality within our own population we simply cannot ignore this  – under the pretext of the risk of being isolated. We cannot isolate ourselves from our own population, from our own citizens, during this period at the beginning of the 21st century when democracy is already in deep crisis. To ignore our population would be worse than being diplomatically isolated; we must preserve this link at all costs. This is in fact the most important element of the debate. (clapping)

Secondly as Koen Laenarts, professor of European law and the President of the European Court of Justice reminded us – we are one of the very few regions in Europe that has in its constitution the same privilege in terms of international rights as the national parliament. We have the entitlement – or rather the power – to sign (and therefore also not to sign) a treaty: we have the power to ratify (and therefore also not to ratify) a treaty.

Clearly, this gives our debate a huge significance. We would not have this panel of cameras who have come from all the four corners of Europe to be with us today if we didn't have this privilege. No one would care about Wallonia if the life of Wallonia was not decisive. And so, from this point of view, we have a major political responsibility - and the art of politics is to know how to use this responsibility.

For us to conclude as Mme Defrang-Firket does – that yes, we have a formidable power, we have a civil society which is mobilised which is great thing, but what is it for? What is the use?… For us to blindly sign and ratify would be to ignore all the work we have done. It would call into question our own constitutional competence, and it would call into question our own democratic vitality. What is the use of a parliament if it must sign and ratify regardless? What is the use of a parliament if it must sign and ratify regardless?

Conversely, to say that all this is nonsense and that there is no point in discussing it, would not only be to confirm our total isolation, but would also represent a refusal to use the power we have in its full capacity. Of course we should use this power in its capacity. We must use it to obtain something, not just to shout, no. Not just to say: we don't agree, we don't agree, we don't agree, we don't agree - In saying that we don’t agree we must also say what we want, and we must use the relations of forces which we have built in order to obtain concessions in line with our aspirations and in line with the aspirations of our population. This is politics. This is what we are doing, right now, and it is difficult! But despite everything we must follow through with this exercise.

lead Ridding ourselves of caricature

Of course, we are not against trade, of course we are not against Canada. If we could rid ourselves of these caricatures and if we could avoid these simplifications, we would not only gain a lot of time, but we would also make a lot of progress in the quality of relations with our European partners and with our Canadian partners. Of course the Canadians are our friends. Of course we regret that this legal discussion – this discussion of principles – comes as a result of a treaty with Canada (which is certainly one of the countries closest to us in the world), and as a result of a treaty which is certainly, effectively, one of the most advanced in the world of today. But it is not because our friends are our friends – and it is not because this treaty is less bad than others – that we should renounce our democratic responsibilities and obligations.

We are an important trade partner of Canada – last year we saw excellent trade with Canada which exceeded €115m, even without the CETA agreement. This is the proof that we trade very well with Canada and that we are not in the business of closing ourselves off, as some people might see it.

I just came back from Japan where, in effect, I spent three days defending our businesses there, trying to help them to export more and trying to attract foreign investors to our country. And I do not have two lines of argument. I am convinced that Wallonia should be an open Wallonia and I am convinced that Wallonia should export and should attract foreign investment. In order to do this I know that we need a legal framework, but once again, this does not mean that we should accept everything or that we must therefore deny ourselves the power that we have in order to have a real critical examination. This would not be taking everything into consideration. I am convinced that Wallonia should be an open Wallonia and …that Wallonia should export and should attract foreign investment.

We are not against trade and we are not against Canada. And I would also say that it is great, Madame Defrang-Firket, that because the Canadians are our friends, we can allow ourselves to tell them that we disagree with a number of things.

I do not like the fact that the conversation is suddenly sliding towards the kinds of threats that we have seen over the last few days... Be careful, there will be consequences… Be careful, there will be retaliations… etc. I do not like this at all. I find that it is undignified, and undemocratic. Furthermore, I do not like the fact that the conversation is slowly descending to insults. I hope, precisely because we are friends, that between ourselves we can avoid the borderline insulting threats and remarks, and that we can speak to each other frankly, in complete sincerity and reciprocal understanding. When we have a friend who is in difficulty, we listen to them, we try to understand their difficulties, and we try to find a way of overcoming these difficulties together. This works in bilateral diplomacy just as well as in daily life, and this is the message that we would like to spread. When we have a friend who is in difficulty, we listen to them, we try to understand their difficulties.

The nature of the agreement

Our difficulties are well known: our difficulties are primarily with the form of the agreement. There is a real problem with the manner in which we are negotiating this trade treaty. There is a real problem. And the people who still do not understand this fact are re-creating the bilateral trade crisis which concluded 15 years ago.

In 2001, remember, the WTO (OMC) told us that they were opening the debt cycles, to a new great cycle of multilateral, terrific and open liberalisation. They told us that they were running open and honest negotiations. But in effect they prepared a small room in the corner where the NGO’s could pretend to be informed, and from time to time they would go and check up on them, offer them some water or coffee, but would never give them any solid information, and of course no debate. This is unacceptable. And this will never become acceptable.

This is unacceptable. And this will never become acceptable. This is why after 15 years, we are having bilateral discussions today – precisely because the multilateral process is no longer working and because Europe is trying to re-establish its relations with its closest partners (Canada, Japan, tomorrow the US) and to do this on different foundations (by including social and environmental norms and rules in these relations, rules that respect the rights of man and cultural exemptions), foundations which are much stronger and more solid than those found in the treaties of multilateral liberalisation.

And it is because of this, that we must (if we are indeed progressive, and if we are open to the world, and if we want Europe to continue to play a role on the world scene) defend the idea of bilateral treaties which fix raised norms and standards.

I am not saying, Mr Geulette, that we should throw the treaty in the bin… Throw the treaty in the bin and then what? Nothing! And then, we would still have exactly what we have today, which is multinationals, with sales revenues sometimes larger than some of the member-states, who think that they can fix the law, multinationals who resort to private jurisdiction, or to threats. The threat of the withdrawal of investment, the threat of withdrawal, the threat of retaliation – this is the real world of today.

And it is precisely this that we want to avoid, and to escape, by enacting socio-economic and environmental rules on a global level regarding the relations between states, which preserve those agreements we have been able to build amongst our states, decade after decade, and only after lengthy social struggles. Social rights did not just simply appear at once and environmental norms did not simply appear out of thin air: they are the result of social mobilisation over a long period of time which was translated into legislation at specific, culminating moments. Social rights did not just simply appear at once and environmental norms did not simply appear out of thin air.

And of course it is exactly the same on the international level. If tomorrow we want there to be real social norms; if we want the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (OIT) to be applicable, respected, and restrictive; if we want there to be solid rules regarding human rights and sustainable development, work is necessary to obtain a treaty which fixes the standards high enough that they become the European norm. This is the key issue of the CETA agreement – the fundamental issue at stake – and it is because of this that we must say no, in order that we may negotiate further. Not no in order to scupper everything – to kick the anthill – but no in order to create a relation of forces which allows us to obtain more social standards, more environmental standards, more clauses concerning the respect of public services, forces which will allow us to say, tomorrow, that this is the European standard!

And when the EU opens negotiations with Japan, with the US, or with whoever else, discussions will be based on these standards. This is the fundamental issue and this is why the debates today are so strong. (clapping)...

Ancient tools

But clearly, such a negotiation cannot be upheld using the usual methods. We cannot do something new with ancient tools. As Albert Einstein said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. So it is the manner in which we carry out trade negotiations which must change. So it is the manner in which we carry out trade negotiations which must change.

In Emmanual Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, he said, I quote: “All actions that affect the rights of others are unjust if their maxim is not consistent with publicness.” This has become a fundamental principle of international law. In other words, what we don't need to hide, we shouldn't hide. If we have nothing to hide in these trade agreements – if the CETA is actually good for small and medium-sized businesses, if it is good for farmers, if it is good for public services, and if it is good for growth – then why must it be negotiated in secret, why is it not strong enough to be discussed before the citizens?

There is a fundamental contradiction in the method here. It has been applied since the beginning. And it is not, Madame Defrang, that we have been asleep for 10 years : a mandate was given in 2009, a mandate of about 20 pages which fixes the benchmarks and the framework. Between 2009 and 2015, the commission was negotiating in the name of the EU – which is its duty – but gave virtually no information on the progress of these negotiations. And then we get to 2015 saying : ‘Hello, there you go, it’s finished. And the 20 pages have become 1600 pages. And now we are asking you to say Amen’.

But no, it is precisely this which is unacceptable, and it is precisely because we can no longer accept this way of carrying out trade negotiations that – as from Sept 2015 – from when the texts were made available to us, we sounded the alarm. I will not read you the interminable list that we have had for over a year now, but I remember that it was on September 18, 2015 that I indicated to the Quebecian minister of international relations that these were the difficulties we were having with the CETA. I remember also that it was a few days later, October 2, 2015 (over a year ago) that I returned to the office of Mme Malmström – the European Commissioner for Trade – in order to explain very clearly that these were the difficulties we had with this treaty. For the whole year we have not stopped contacting our European partners – the Commission, Canada – but this has led to almost nothing.

The first Belgian coordination meeting took place on July 6, 2016. Between October and July – 10 months – nothing happened. And then all of a sudden in July 2016, they started to say: these Wallonians seem determined, these Wallonians seem to know what they want, and they seem to be in it until the end, so we’re going to have to start talking with them.

A few days later, I called the Prime Minister of Quebec, Mr Couillard, saying to him: I understand that it is difficult to renegotiate everything, but you must understand that we have some fundamental benchmarks in a resolution and we would like to be able to talk on the basis of these hallmarks within a legal framework yet to be defined. It could be a protocol, it could be an additional convention, it could be an interpretative declaration – but it must be legally binding. At this moment, he told me ‘why not, it could be a good idea?’

At this moment, he told me ‘why not, it could be a good idea?’. But nothing followed. and we had to wait. At the end of September I repeated all this to the special envoy of Mr Trudeau – Mr Pettigrew – and to the ambassadors, but had to wait until October 4 for them to give me an oral account of the first elements of what was to be the contents page of an eventual interpretative declaration.  October 4. They told me: yes we are already late, but please try to agree for October 11, October 18 at the very latest, which is the date of the Coreper meeting (between the Commission and Wallonia).

And what has been given to us? What has been presented to us, only in speech? Tiny additions! Additions which came on October 6 and 7 in an unfinished version, and which we are still receiving bit by bit every day. Every day I receive a tiny bit more of the interpretative declaration and every day they say: ‘oh is this not enough? Here, have another little piece, you would do well to settle for that’.

But this method is not okay. I will repeat it, I will say it again, I told Mr Hollande the same yesterday evening, I told Jean-Claude Junker the same yesterday evening. I have said the same thing to everyone who has had the kindness and the courtesy to call me to ask about the situation in Wallonia: we really want to discuss, but we want to talk over a table, with transparency and with respect for democratic rules.

We want to be able to say that we Wallonians have these markers that we must absolutely find in a treaty, and it is only with such a negotiation (and it is only if our European and Canadian partners can recognise the depth of our concerns) that we will be able to say that yes, this is a treaty that is going to fix high standards. This is a treaty worth defending. But as it is, I have still had no response.

This morning, once again, I rang the federal minister for foreign affairs, Didier Reynders, to explain this situation to him. I felt that he was interested, and I hope therefore that we will be able to advance in this direction, and this is my fundamental desire. But for that to take place a real desire to change the method is needed, even if this is at the end of the road. Better late than never.

We regions with difficulties are less isolated than we think. Of course no one will speak first. It is always the same game. We always say to ourselves that whoever speaks first will be blamed and criticised, they will suffer the retaliations, they will be put under pressure. And many are waiting, saying: ‘Look, the Walloons are going to speak first, which means we will not do the same because the whole process will be paralysed’ – these are petty games and it's always the same. I can tell you about a great number of bilateral conversations that I’ve had where the reluctance of at least four or five member states and of the European Commission has been very, very clear. Reticence with regard to this treaty in its current state is not confined to internal Belgian politicking or to the Walloons.

And if the situation is such, then we should be sitting around a table, with clarity, with transparency, to discuss and to see whether our legitimate demands can be met….

In saying that we have difficulties with the Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism (ISDS) – it's possible that it is still in there – we are not the only ones. Read last night’s judgement of the German constitution. It says: yes Germany could sign, but not this arbitration mechanism, and whatever happens it cannot do it with any enthusiasm, not even provisionally. The body of the German constitution carries a lot of weight in Europe, and so it is suggesting that it is not only the Walloons who have a problem with this mechanism. It is citing exactly the same reservations, about the risk of rampant privatisation, and about justice, as the criticisms which we are putting forward and that many of you have put forward in your motions.

Seeking the right words

When we say that the interpretative declaration is full of good intentions, it is true – the political message expressed in it on human rights, on cultural exception, on environmental protection, on the ILO conventions, on workers rights, on the capacity to regulate, on the principle of precaution, (and more, but I’ll stop because there are new pages every day), all these elements are elements which are heading in the right direction, which are realising what our aspirations were.

But as it stands today, this interpretative declaration is not enough: it does not give us enough guarantees. The problem is not… whether we need a different interpretative declaration or juridical instrument. The question is over how we should word the observations which will have the same force as our treaty obligations. And this is also what I said to everyone who phoned me: if you accept that we are reopening the discussion, that we are asking that in its wording we reformulate a certain number of remarks which are in the interpretative declaration, and that we are suggesting a few new formulations – I am convinced that many other European states would support us because they are also interested in having more precise clauses in there in terms of the protection of public services, and the protection, for example, of workers’ rights too. This is the message that we must push through.

Politically, therefore, it is no easy feat. Clearly it is not easy. Whatever we do we will be taking a risk – the risk either of isolating ourselves from the population, because they might well say: don't take us for more important than we are, accept the treaty whatever it might be, it's not so bad, forget about the little imperfections. I believe that would do nothing but reinforce an already very deep posture of defiance within the political class, and that it would do nothing but reinforce their even more deep defiance in regard to international negotiations and trade negotiations. Forget about tomorrow. This, to me, does not seem to be a position of political responsibility.

Conversely, we could say to ourselves: say no, period, that's it. And then we could let off some fireworks and rejoice at having sunk the ship. But what about tomorrow? Forget about tomorrow. This, to me, does not seem to be a position of political responsibility.

Alternatively, we could say no, but explain why we are saying no, and explain the conditions on which we would accept the reopening of negotiations. This has always been the proposition, and this remains the proposition. And so, what I would say to all those questioning our position is what I have said before and what I have confirmed for the federal minister of foreign affairs just now:

Today, the parliament of Wallonia re-examined the interpretative declaration. New documents arrived today, will arrive tomorrow no doubt, and maybe even on Monday. And we will continue to examine them. Because it is this seriousness, this rigour in analysis which gives credibility to our approach.

But today, our analysis leads us to believe that this does not give us a sufficient guarantee. So as I promised formally before you, I will not give the plans the go ahead to the federal government and Belgium will not sign the CETA agreement on October 18.

I do not see this as a burial. I do not see this as a veto without qualification. I see this as a demand to reopen negotiations in order that the legitimate desires of an organised and transparent civil society – one that has expressed itself with considerable force – may be heard by the leaders of Europe.

And then we might be able to contribute, together, not only to the prosperity of the other, but also to the reconstruction of political confidence between citizens and their elected representatives. Thank you for your attention."

Thanks go to Asher Korner for the translation from the French.

About the author

Paul Magnette is a Belgian politician, Chairman of the PS and former political science professor at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). He is the current Minister-President of the French-speaking region of Wallonia and the current mayor of Charleroi.

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