How the Walloon Parliament discussed the CETA issue

Minutes of the parliamentary debate

jpv. The following is a documentation for information put forward by “Current Concerns”: these are extracts of the public meeting progress report of the Commission on European questions of the Parliament of Wallonia dated 21 October 2016 concerning the CETA/AECG (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement/Accord économique et commercial global). This report reflects, in all the represented parties, the deeply democratic approach for the sake of the country, as it should be for all European Parliaments. The freetrade agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada was closed on 26 September 2014. In October 2014, the Commission in charge of European Affairs has started the analytical works and subsequently voted, on 27 April 2016 on a resolution containing its claims. The latter was confirmed on 14 October by the Parliament in a plenary session. Thereafter Paul Magnette, Head of Government and Minister President of the Wallonia, agreed to conduct the negotiations with the Canadian and EU representatives in close consultation with the Parliamentary Committee.

On 21 October at 9:30 a.m., a committee meeting had been convened with the Head of Government to discuss the last results of the negotiations. As the Minister President was still in the process of negotiating with the Canadian delegation the new proposals hereof, the meeting could resume by noon only.
Mr Magnette stated his speech by mentioning first the positive developments of the discussions in some specific areas, particularly agriculture. However, he specified that there were still difficulties in a highly sensitive – but politically extremely important – case: that of arbitration.

Minister President Paul Magnette’s preliminary reflections

“I must say that the discussion we had this morning with the Canadians was very constructive, and we have recall our deep commitment for this big and beautiful country, to which we are so profoundly attached. We mentioned that, obviously, we were not against economic exchange, and moreover, we already do a lot of business with them, and that we want to continue working with them. We have taken account of the flexibility they told us to be granted in discussing, but I very honestly should mention that we are under a tremendous time pressure and that at this stage – and I am, over and over again, pleading to do it amicably – we should altogether agree to postpone the Europe-Canada Summit and to give us some time for analysing the new proposals. I did not succedd in convincing our partners. So that’s where we are. […]
I have told everyone and I have told it to the highest-ranking of the European Commission and Council, we keep with a constructive approach to negotiating and trying to achieve a fair agreement. If we could reach an agreement – as I mentioned in my statement in last week’s plenary session – with social and environmental standards, human rights, protection of public services, protection of agriculture, with very strong public mechanisms, that would be a major step forward for Europe and Canada. That would strengthen the links between Europe and Canada. We would become those who set international standards. And what if we do not obtain that level? If we held, for a number of standards – for instance, public services – a mere statement, which is not even a binding commitment?
The arbitration issue is very important; it will be a key issue. Who will decide in the future, when conflicts will occur between governments and multinationals? National courts, or mechanisms? Today the mechanism, as formulated in writing in the agreement, is not very clear. It is a matter of major principles, of broad guidelines. The mechanism is not even accurately described, although there have been some improvements in the way it is specified. Should we – to quote a commonly used phrase – buy a pig in a poke? Should we accept the agreement even if, unfortunately, there is here something with a potential risk to be problematic?
This is not innocuous. Basically, there is talk of the way nationstates solve their problems with multinationals, at a time when – and that is evidenced by a number of instances – these tensions strengthen, there are many contentious issues and there is an overwhelming sense at the loss       of some of the public control by the nationstates, and that’s because it is for real.
This is what this debate we have is all about, although with great courtesy and open-mindedness, however, with little scheduling margin at this stage.
 I suggest deferring to the members of Parliament in order to subsequently respond to their questions.”

Selected statements of members of the commission

Commission president Andre Antoine thanks the Prime Minister for leaving the negotiation table in order to come to the commission. He pointed out, his presence meant that parliament was directly involved in the negotiations for the first time. He also thanked for the various documents which Mister Magnette, the chairman of the government, had distributed to the members of the commission.
“Most of all I thank – as president of the Wallonian parliament – for actually paying careful attention to the demands of our resolution during your negotiations, since all too often such resolutions are just ridiculed. We are talking about the resolution which we passed on 27 April and which parliament accepted on 14 October.”
In the following passages we collect brief quotes from some of the commission members who belong to six different parties.
Frederic Gillot (PTB-GO!): “Prime Minister, I very much appreciate that you remain focused and oppose this treaty with determination. This determination is rooted in the democratically legitimised will of this parliament. The democratic process is functioning very well. I would like to emphasise that once again. Wallonia is not standing alone. Considering the opinion of the people in other states I can assure you that Wallonia is anything but isolated.”
Olga Zrihen (PS): “The quality of parliamentarian work illustrates the democratic procedures which our fellow citizens demand, whether they are natives or Europeans. Let’s address the crucial issue now.[…] I want the concerns of our parliamentary group to be heard. A text which binds 500 million Europeans in such crucial issues for both sides of the Atlantic should not be signed under time pressure. Is it really so unthinkable to just spend another two months in order to complete all necessary negotiations and everybody can really define their positions? The awareness of responsibility for 28 member states and the seriousness in our work, all those expectations on various sides, the analyses which were put together, all that deserves to be respected. With that we are not arguing against the treaty but rather that enough time is spent to dedicate ourselves to it with responsibility and serenity.”
Helene Ryckmans (Ecolo): “For several days messages have reached us from everywhere, from all different backgrounds, from Canada and Europe. These messages of support and congratulation show the expectations and the will of a great number of Europeans in many countries to endorse our activities and efforts to clarify all agendas of this treaty […]”
Christophe Collignon (PS): “First of all I would like to thank the Prime Minister and the whole government for their determined support. I think this a very rare event. One has to emphasise that. We are talking about an extremely rare democratic procedure here. It is similar to the demands of the civil society regarding the European Union negotiations. We conclude that from the mails we are getting. It should be quite healthy for a democracy that parliament should have the last word. The Wallonian parliament should therefore not be ashamed for the way this dossier is being dealt with. I would even dare to say, we are setting an example for the whole of Europe […]”
Dimitri Fourny (cdH): “If we are to ratify this treaty securities are needed. We need guarantees for our farmers, for our entrepreneurs, for our small and medium companies and for our citizens in general. We need securities regarding the validity, the binding legal effect of the issues which are still negotiated. We need time: what is written down will remain, the spoken word will vanish. Such important matters as those which you are negotiating right now and achieve progress about cannot be solved between two doors, between to planes, between Strasbourg and Namur [the Wallonian capital]. It is crucial that we and you have enough time to work carefully and define amendments because the devil is in the detail. This is the only way to make sure that the agreements between Wallonia, Canada and the European Commission will have a legally binding character. The texts also have to be edited so that they are coherent. This is even more important since the whole contract will amount to 1,600 pages. Even if the amendments should only be several pages it has to be guaranteed that their elements are legally binding. Therefore we are strongly demanding that you get the time you need. If it takes three weeks or one month or maybe 6 months we should allow ourselves this time but let’s not slam the door towards Canada which has been opened for Wallonia…”

Final remarks of the Prime Minister

In the commission’s report there are four more statements of members of the commission which will not be quoted here to keep the article concise. Parts of the Prime Ministers’ response to the addresses are as follows:
Paul Magnette, Prime Minister of Wallonia: “I will try to be as transparent in my answers as possible. To start with, a brief explanation in the beginning as to why we are having this debate: In fact some people are trying to discredit our parliamentarian work today and defame it as some diversionary tactic. We are one of the few regional parliaments in Europe with the same competencies as a national parliament. Even though some parties regret it, this power has been bestowed on us. I would like to point out, that the Belgian Prime Minister and the minister of Foreign Affairs have assured us that they will appreciate the opinion of the Wallonian parliament and this is excellent. However, one cannot tell us ‘We gave you this power but we urge you not to use it.’ Since we are entitled to it, it is logical that we will use this controlling power. […]
The other reason why the situation is so intense can be explained by the fact that there is much more at stake than just the treaty with Canada. There will be many more similar bilateral trade agreements in the future and therefore it is so important. If I wanted to stress this issue even more I would be tempted to say that this current conflict is about the question what kind of globalisation we want. Whether we want it or not, integration of all parts in the world will continue to increase. In fact that is a good thing, there is nothing worse than borders. But how will globalisation develop? Will it follow strong rules or weak ones? Will the public sector control it or will multinational corporations rule everything? Will a functioning legal system prevail or will private arbitral courts, which only those who are rich enough may appeal to, have their say?  These are crucial questions we have to face […]
The settlement of conflicts between trading partners is the crucial point, and this issue is not about trivia. Several times an agreement seemed near but one remaining controversial point may topple the whole construction. […] With the mechanisms of those private arbitrary courts we think that the guarantees of securities are not quite sufficient as they are planned at the moment, and that is a euphemism.
It is no coincidence that these mechanisms are still so vaguely defined. Several other countries have the same problem like us and don’t want these tribunals to be established before all details have been revealed. However, we are told: “This is no problem. Just keep going. Before ratification everything will be explained.”  The strategy is always the same: proceeding, and at the end you cannot refuse to sign because you are the last one. No, there is a point when someone needs to say ‘Still I will stop the whole thing.’” […]
In this treaty there are really some interesting details. It is very sophisticated, and should it ever been ratified, it will be the most sophisticated trading agreement in the world. However it contains several difficult issues. You have asked me not to negotiate in a way saying : `Let´s not worry, there are two or three minor issues still unclear. No big deal, just move on.´ Instead you asked me to say: ‘We want to negotiate to the end because we think that we are defining mechanisms here which will influence a whole bunch of other agreement still to come.’ And this is the strategy I followed. […]
It was good to have this debate. In a democracy you know once you have opened the box you will not be able to cover it up again. I hope many more parliaments will develop an ambition to do at least as good a job as you did.”     •

(Translation Current Concerns)

Belgium and Wallonia

jpv. Belgium is a federal state since 1993. The country includes three regions: the Walloon Region, the Flemish Region and the Brussels-capital Region, all of them having their own parliaments and governments. Then there are three “cultural communities”: the French, Flemish and German ones, all of them with extensive powers as well. Wallonia covers the southern part of Belgium, with a surface of 17,000 km2 (out of a total of 30,000 km2) and a population of 3,5 million inhabitants (out of a total of 11 millions).