BRUSSELS — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the good people of Wallonia stand with you this week in your opposition to trade deals.
The French-speaking region of Belgium is only about the size of Connecticut, but this week Wallonia is threatening to derail a free-trade agreement between the European Union and Canada that encompasses a quarter of the world’s economic muscle.
After decades in which the currents of globalization seemed to move in only one direction, voters around the world are becoming increasingly skeptical. They are fueled by a sense that the demise of trade barriers has benefited only the upper echelons of society and that ordinary folks are forced to deal with factory closures and diminished opportunities.
On Friday, a landmark deal that would sweep away nearly all tariffs between Canada and the 28-nation E.U., seemed doomed as the European Union failed to finalize a massive free trade deal with Canada by a self-imposed deadline on Friday because Wallonia said its objections had not been sufficiently addressed.
The controversy bodes poorly for Britain’s efforts to negotiate favorable terms for its departure from the E.U., because it will need to sign a raft of trade agreements to cushion the divorce. Nor is it giving confidence to proponents of a twin deal with the United States, an agreement that has been mired in concerns on both sides of the Atlantic despite President Obama’s making it a priority over his two terms in office.
“There are of course bigger things at stake than only this agreement,” European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said this week after meeting with Europe’s trade ministers. “It’s about the credibility of the European Union to conclude trade agreements in the future.”
The E.U. says that the Canada deal, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, would boost its economic output by $13 billion a year. But that has not been enough to convince the government of Wallonia, Belgium’s southern region, which rejected the deal Friday. The region’s leaders fear the effect on public services and farmers and want to reopen the negotiations, which stretched five years. The deal needs approval from all of Europe’s parliaments — 28 national legislatures and 10 regional ones.
“We are, of course, not against trade agreements. We must help Walloon companies to export more,” Paul Magnette, the minister-president of Wallonia, told Belgium’s RTBF broadcaster. But he said he is seeking a deal in which “high social standards will benefit everyone.”
If the agreement falters, it will be a major blow to the E.U. — one of its strongest selling points has always been that European nations can negotiate more-favorable trade deals together rather than individually.
But the skepticism over tearing down trade barriers has hardly been confined to Wallonia, a landlocked region that was an industrial powerhouse before World War II but has had a tough 70 years since then. In the United States, Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has departed from decades of GOP orthodoxy by hammering at the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and has threatened to use trade tariffs to bludgeon other countries into submitting to better terms with U.S. businesses. Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, pressured by left-wing primary challenger Bernie Sanders of Vermont, declared her opposition to a trade deal with Asian nations, even though she had declared it the “gold standard” when she was secretary of state.
Walloon leaders say they will not fold under pressure from the calendar. E.U. leaders are meeting Thursday and Friday, and the trade pact will be at the top of the agenda — but they will be unable to seal the deal unless Wallonia gives in.