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Belgium's Vote Is Proof Small Acts Of Bravery Can Halt CETA

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belgium october 14
Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel speaks during his state-of-the-union address at the Belgian Parliament. (Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

A small part of Belgium -- itself a small country -- voted late last week to say that it cannot support the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union.
I couldn't be happier, or more impressed by this beleaguered region standing up to the economic and political forces behind CETA.

Last Friday, the Parliament of Wallonia, a French-speaking area in the bilingual country, voted to prevent Belgium from signing onto the deal. This is significant, because under the Belgian constitution, every regional parliament in the country must agree to any such deal.

Some have described this particular feature of Belgium's constitution as "byzantine" for its ability to block such national or international deals. Keep in mind that Wallonia is one of those regions of Europe that has been regularly overrun by foreign powers over the centuries. The constitutional veto is no doubt a reflection of outside threats, whether military or economic.

Here's why it matters: without Wallonia's support, Belgium cannot ratify the deal. Without Belgium's support, CETA cannot go ahead.

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Protesters gather to protest the TTIP and CETA free trade agreements at Brussels, Belgium on Sept. 20, 2016. (Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In an attempt to counteract the feat of a tiny but mighty region, other CETA countries are sending trade envoys to Wallonia to boost support the deal. Canada is sending Pierre Pettigrew, our trade minister back when the World Trade Organization talks collapsed in Seattle.

On the face of it, Canada couldn't be more different from Belgium -- or Wallonia, for that matter. We are very big geographically, they are small. We are a relatively young country, the Belgian nation dates back centuries.

But we also have much in common -- and not just because so many Canadians fought and died in Walloon fields and towns during two world wars. Both Canada and Wallonia are home to industrial towns that have seen factories go silent, devastating their communities.

On CETA in particular, the concerns in Wallonia would be familiar to anyone in Canada who is also worried about the deal. As Socialist MP Olgo Zrihen said, "We say yes to trade with Canada. No to the text as it is currently written."

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Andre Antoine, chairman of the Belgium's French-speaking region of Wallonia parliament. Lawmakers voted to block an EU-Canada trade deal in a move with serious implications for future trade talks with the U.S. and a non-EU Britain. (Photo: Bruno Fahy/AFP/Getty Images)

Here in Canada, Unifor has been saying much the same thing about both CETA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Like other progressive groups in this country, we recognize that Canada is a trading nation, and we support international trade, but only when trade is fair.

What we cannot support is any trade deal that does not serve the needs of working people or one that restricts our right to pass laws in the interest of the people.

Like the people of Wallonia, Canadians are increasingly concerned about the powers given to corporations under Investor State Disputes Settlement (ISDS) systems. Hélène Ryckmans, an MP for Wallonia's environmental Ecolo Party, said the ISDS system could force the region to pay compensation to corporations if local regulations hurt their profits - even if those regulations are in the public interest.
Here in Canada, we have similar concerns. Canada is already the most sued nation in the world under ISDS systems, thanks to similar provisions in NAFTA. It makes no sense for Canada to sign any deal, such as CETA or the TPP, that would see us sued even more.

The vote in Wallonia isn't about people or local politicians not understanding the deal. It's about out-of-touch politicians bending to a corporate agenda and the drive of capitalism rather than putting the needs of people first. This is the time for governments to stand boldly and with courage and conviction to push a new model of fair trade - one in which the needs and the future of communities are put first.

We should take inspiration from them, and redouble our efforts to push back against CETA.

There is an opportunity here to do the right thing. The question is whether politicians have the will to stand up to restore and define the kind of communities that we want, ones where we are not made subservient to the profit needs of corporations.

Asked by reporters if such a small region should really have final say over such a big deal, the people of Wallonia just shrugged. What we are seeing in Wallonia are ordinary people from a forgotten industrial and farming region saying enough is enough.

This isn't the ugly face of Brexit. This is the people saying they know a better life is possible, and I applaud their efforts for taking action to stand up for the principle of fairness. They saw a better world when factories in their communities hummed with activity and provided good jobs. They believe in trade, knowing that the factories in Wallonia once sent products across Europe and around the world, but they don't believe in handing over all their rights to corporations just to get it.

It takes great bravery, in the face of stark economic troubles, to stand up to whatever faint hope a trade deal might offer, but that's what the people of Wallonia are doing. We should take inspiration from them, and redouble our efforts to push back against CETA.

To the people of Wallonia, Unifor stands with you.

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