It is an institutional and a democratic problem – not a free trade question!
The kafuffle surrounding the signature of the FTA with Canada is the latest example of the paralysis inhibiting the EU to play its part, even in a domain in which the Treaty conferred on it specific responsibilities and powers. It is a clear example of the Damocles sword suspended over the Union’s capacity to demonstrate its relevance.
The case of the Walloon vote is emblematic. Let us first render to Magnette what is due to Magnette and attempt to restore to the EU what is due to the EU: the work accomplished by the Walloon Parliament is exemplary within the framework of the powers conferred upon it by the 5th reform of the Belgian State. Whether one agrees or not with the arguments put forward, nothing puts into doubt the legitimacy of the vote expressed democratically by the Walloon Parliament. It is therefore not the intention to argue against the substance of the decision which was subjected to a thorough examination which other stakeholders would have been well inspired to emulate.
That being said, it should be evident for any good faith observer that managing the Union is – and will become – increasingly impossible, if its operations are constantly being thwarted by the perverse utilisation of inadequate legislation. In the event, the problem of the signing of the CETA agreement does not stem primarily from its content but from the Belgian institutional architecture which granted powers, previously exercised by the federal authorities, to its federated component parts. Belgium that had ratified the TEU and had conferred as a country – in line with its own constitutional procedures – the relevant powers to the Union; subsequently changes at national level have “unilaterally” modified the exercise of those powers,+ leading to the blocking by a tiny minority (3.5 million people over more than 500 million) of an agreement which, however imperfect, had been accepted unanimously by democratic governments representing a majority of EU citizens.
The absurdity of the situation is patent: what would happen if, in turn, the Walloon Parliament conferred on the 5 Walloon provinces (or in the extreme to all of its municipalities) a right of veto similar to the one it has just exercised itself? Remedies to these specific problems are, however, on hand, both at the Belgian and European level:
- Belgium could decide (during the next State reform) that the agreement of the federated entities should apply to the negotiating mandate given by the European Council to the Commission and not the outcome which would be submitted exclusively to the federal government/parliament.
- The Union could decide that, in the absence of a majority vote (possibly qualified) in Council, any commercial treaty would be adopted exclusively by the Council and the European Parliament without any reference to the Member States.
It is high time that the Union launches a deep reform of its institutional architecture. This implies convening an Intergovernmental Conference to amend the Treaty, not only on the points raised here above, however pertinent, but to address the needs for efficiency, democracy and governance that a Union of 27 (28?) demand. Failing an appropriate forum in which each Member State can put forward its wishes, the number of obstacles will increase and lead, by default, to the implosion of the EU. This process is already under way: in addition to the paralysis of further EMU integration, the lax enforcement of the budgetary Treaty, the threats of withholding the approval of the EU budget, the refusal of solidarity in meeting the refugee crisis, Brexit, etc., the perspective of reaching a global compromise is receding by the day, as the protagonists wrap themselves in the righteousness of their positions in defence of the specific causes they champion.
It is regrettable to witness that, in such an fraught geopolitical context, the EU hardly features in the electoral manifestos, be it in France, Germany, etc., despite the fact that it is an obvious part of the solution in the defence of the cherished European social model. As was so well put by Philippe Maystadt in his recent Op Ed published in Le Soir newspaper, it is only inside the major trading blocs that it is possible to manage the irreversible consequences of globalisation, any agreements between them representing only the visible tip of the iceberg (a fact that the British risk to discover at their expense).
It is therefore necessary that the forthcoming polls to be held on the continent as well as the Brexit negotiations are not used as a pretext to further postpone – in the name of some misplaced deadly pragmatism – taking the long overdue decisions that have become inescapable.