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The CETA Diaries: What Canadian Politicians Really Did in Belgium

paul magnette

Minister-President of Wallonia Paul Magnette arrives at a meeting on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a planned EU-Canada free trade agreement, at the Lambermont Residence in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 27, 2016. (Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters)

Last October, we were treated to the tale of the off-again, on-again Canada-European Union summit featuring CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. The agreement was signed in a hasty and somewhat shaky ceremony on October 30, with the Canadian prime minister’s plane leaving late on the evening of Oct. 29 and then having to turn back in the middle of the night due to mechanical problems. It was a comedy of errors right from the beginning. 

As some readers may recall, the small but mighty region of Wallonia used its constitutional authority to block Belgium from signing the agreement. Wallonia had concerns about the agreement’s effects on its ability to legislate, with investor-state dispute settlement clauses allowing corporations to sue states, and the effects CETA would have on public health regulations, food safety and public services. Because of this, the initial October 27 signing date had to be pushed back. For several weeks, EU, Belgian and Canadian politicians tried to get Wallonia to agree. Three deadlines and ultimatums passed.

Some of the most interesting tidbits: Remember Minister Chrystia Freeland crying? We will never know what made her cry. Magnette says they went into a break and let the Canadians’ work, glued to their phones, in a room where they were served lunch and the best Walloon eclairs and chocolates. And Freeland just announced it was time to go home. He suspects that the image of a global leader waiting in front of the world’s cameras for a region with one-tenth Canada’s population didn’t look good. Freeland bragged to an American audience that it was a bluff to make the Walloons feel guilty.

It is the same agreement negotiated under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with some cosmetic changes. And it has many problems.

Canada and the European Commission effectively tried to bully and pressure Wallonia into accepting CETA. EU politicians threatened Wallonia with economic reprisals, saying they were all alone and that companies were going to review decisions to invest in Wallonia because of its stance on CETA. Canada, represented by former federal Minister Pierre Pettigrew and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, among others, went for the emotional approach — how Canadians died for them.

“They insisted on the intensity of the links between Belgium and Canada, and more particularly between Wallonia and Quebec, on the language and history that unities us; they reminded us that many Canadian citizens are immigrants from Wallonia to North America and that, in the military cemeteries of Wallonia, the tombs of Canadian soldiers fallen to liberate Belgium is a poignant witness of the solidarity between the two peoples.”

According to Magnette, Freeland showed up in the city of Namur in a large van with tinted windows and asked menacingly if he wanted to become the leader of the extreme left in Europe. Magnette was surprised that the Canadian government did not follow protocol by negotiating with their hierarchical equal, the Belgian government, but with a region. This was particularly surprising coming from Canada, which has had its own share of constitutional squabbles and which understands federalism.

The Canadians tried to sway them with a press opportunity with Trudeau. According to Magnette, Freeland said, “I understand that you need a trophy to return to Parliament with. I will therefore make you a proposal. Tomorrow morning, there is a flight from Brussels to Ottawa. I will organize a public interview with prime minister Trudeau. Between now and then, we will negotiate a Canada-Wallonia statement of principles outlining the main points we agree on between us to clarify and improve CETA. You meet prime minister Trudeau, you leave triumphant from the meeting, we organize an international press conference explaining all that you have won and you become one of the heroes of European social democracy.” Magnette responded that he would not accept because he “would appear like a traitor or opportunist who abandoned a political fight that has gone on for two years in exchange for 15 minutes of international media glory.”


Former Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, the day after the Walloon meltdown. © European Union 2016 – European Parliament, (Photo: Flickr Media Commons)

The Liberal Party of Canada tried to present itself as social democratic. Freeland, along with David Lametti, the former parliamentary secretary on international trade, would claim that they and the Canadian government were “social democrats” with the same values as Magnette. Freeland said that she herself was a social democrat. This progressive act has been used often in selling CETA to Europeans, but unfortunately putting “progressive” in front of the agreement doesn’t make it so. It is the same agreement negotiated under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with some cosmetic changes. And it has many problems. Just months later, the same government that was pretending in Europe to be so progressive was putting its arms around Donald Trump and preparing for a “progressive” NAFTA.

I am convinced that the Walloon drama is not over.

If the Europeans needed to reminded of this, they got an illustration from David Lametti. Lametti shocked the Walloon Parliament by confirming that states can regulate but they would have to pay for those regulations under CETA’s investor court system (the mechanism allowing companies to sue states for policies affecting their profits). He did not seem to think this was a problem. 

During the on again, off again summit, I was running around Brussels and Strasbourg on behalf of the Council of Canadians, trying to keep abreast of what was happening, talking to civil society groups, trade unions and Walloon and EU politicians. We showed our support to the Walloons. I am convinced that the Walloon drama is not over. It is just the tip of the iceberg, as 37 European Parliaments go off to ratify the agreement. Magnette has indicated this week that, when it is Wallonia’s turn, it will not ratify the agreement in its present form.


To send a message to Magnette and the people of Wallonia that says the Trudeau government does not speak for you:

Paul Magnette, Ministre-Président Gouvernement wallon

Rue Mazy, 25-27

5100 Namur



Fax: 011-32-81-331-366 (leave out the dashes when dialing)

Originally published in the Huffington Post.