After a three-day delay, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) was finally signed on 30 October in Brussels. For three days, a man called Paul Magnette prevented the signing of Europe’s latest trade agreement. Who is he and what was he trying to achieve?
By: Bram de Botselier
Paul Magnette, a politician of the Belgian ‘Parti socialiste’ (PS), currently serves as Minister-President of the Walloon government and as Mayor of Charleroi, Wallonia’s largest city. He entered politics as an acclaimed academic on EU affairs and held ministerial positions in several governments. As a charismatic and intelligent politician, fluent in English, Italian and Dutch, he has quickly risen through the ranks of the PS. For several days, he dominated the world news due to his resistance against the EU’s trade agreement with Canada.
Concerns from the Walloon agricultural sector and the inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) were the main reasons for Mr. Magnette’s opposition. ISDS would allow companies to sue countries if they violated the trade agreement, which Mr. Magnette found undemocratic. While his decision drew praise from, among others, Greenpeace, others found his opposition to Ceta nothing but hypocritical, most notably the Belgian federal government. The PS was one of the major government parties from 1988 until 2014. Many trade-related agreements have been approved in that period, most of them were much less transparent than Ceta. The negotiations on Ceta even took place when PS held the Prime Minister’s Office.
Moreover, 94% of Belgian trade with Canada is Flemish, leading some analysts to conclude that the effects of Ceta on Wallonia would be very limited. Mr. Magnette eventually dropped his opposition after a Belgian declaration that was added to Ceta. However, it changed nothing to the substance of the agreement and merely reaffirms that the signing of Ceta does not equal its ratification and declares that the Belgian government will asks the opinion of the European Court of Justice on ISDS.
Internal political strategies are probably more important to explain Mr. Magnette’s position. According to the latest opinion poll by public broadcaster RTBF and newspaper La Libre, the Belgian Communist Party would now receive 14,6% of the votes in Wallonia. Their biggest victim is Mr. Magnette’s PS, which would obtain its worst result ever. Thanks to Ceta, Mr. Magnette had the opportunity to regain left-wing detractors by taking a tough stance against “big business”, but it is unclear at this point whether this approach indeed had a long-term effect.
Furthermore, by standing up to Ceta, Mr. Magnette’s centre-left coalition also stood up to the centre-right federal government and its biggest coalition party, the pro-independence New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). It is important to note that the federal government does not have a majority amongst the French-speaking Members of the Federal Parliament. Moreover, many in Wallonia are opposed to the participation of the N-VA in the federal government. These two factors have made the federal government relatively unpopular in the south of Belgium. By standing up against Ceta, Mr. Magnette also presented himself as the defender of Wallonia within the Belgian federal state system.
Finally, Mr. Magnette’s opposition to Ceta will have positive effects for his stance within his party’s hierarchy. Only 45 years old, he is a relatively young politician and seems to be just at the beginning of his career. Even though former Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo is still the number one among the French-speaking socialists, it seems that Paul Magnette has positioned himself as the heir apparent.
While Mr. Magnette’s commitment to social issues and democratic governance are undisputable, it is clear that several motives on different levels played a role. Furthermore, Mr. Magnette stated at the end of the Ceta saga that “the agreement on Ceta means the death of TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.” It will thus be interesting to see what, if any, the long-term effects on Belgium and the European Union will be.