Walloon Minister-President Magnette at the College: “Our opposition was not about Canada, it was about principles”

magnette
Minister-President Magnette at the College of Europe Photo by: Louise Dumont

On Friday 28 April, Minister-President Paul Magnette of the federated Walloon regional government addressed students at the College of Europe about the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), and more importantly, about his opposition to this agreement. The key message? CETA itself was simply collateral damage to a broader opposition based on principles against a new generation of trade agreements.

By: Bram de Botselier

A political scandal in Wallonia caused the conference at the College of Europe to take place much later than originally planned, but Paul Magnette still took the time to discuss free trade with students – even half an hour longer than initially scheduled. In fluent English, Mr. Magnette explained the reasons for his government’s opposition to CETA. As students at the College (particularly those in the IRD Department) have learned many times, free trade agreements have entered a new era. Instead of simply lowering tariffs and abolishing quotas, they also now deal with ‘behind-the-border’ issues, such as environmental and public health protection, consumer standards, and government procurement. Because these topics are more sensitive, this has led the average citizen to become much more critical of free trade—so critical in fact, that trade has become a controversial political topic.

According to Mr. Magnette, this pressure from civil society has led the Walloon Parliament to not simply ratify trade agreements at the request of the government anymore, but instead, the parliamentarians actually study the agreements first. The Walloon Parliament held its first hearings on the legal and economic aspects of CETA, which simply happened to be the first victim of this stricter review procedure. Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström was invited, but her speech “in perfect French” failed to impress the Walloon Members of Parliament. To the contrary, according to Mr. Magnette, the intervention was symbolic of a wider problem within the Commission: namely an attitude that “this trade deal is good, and if you disagree, it is because you do not fully understand it”.

While the competence of the average parliamentarian may be subject to discussion, this is not the case for Mr. Magnette, a renowned former scholar on EU politics. In extraordinary detail, he explained the specific legal issues that were, in his eyes, problematic. It is primarily chapter eight on investment protection that was – and still is, as CETA has not been fully ratified – the problem. Mr. Magnette does not understand why this protection, including a special investment court system (ICS), is needed. After all, both the EU and Canada are democracies with a well-functioning, independent judiciary. Mr. Magnette fears that ICS could actually lead to indirect expropriation, meaning that companies could sue governments if they increase, say environmental legislation, because it would cause them to make less profits under the changes. In this case, these businesses are not suing the government for actual losses, but for profits that they would have made under the old regime before the new legislative framework. In a declaration added to CETA, this practice is explicitly ruled out, which Mr. Magnette called an important precedent.

Nevertheless, he still has concerns about the legality and the desirability of ICS, and continues his efforts on the dossier to the Court of Justice of the EU. Considering that the CETA agreement is signed but not yet ratified, it is still perfectly possible that the EU-Canadian engagement does not turn into a full marriage.

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