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The Council of Canadians is exultant about the potential demise of a Canada/EU trade agreement.

“Democracy has prevailed and the agenda to boost corporate rights is in tatters,” says Maude Barlow, the Council’s national chairperson. “This isn’t about internal Belgian politics. Millions of people across Europe and Canada have rejected this deal, including many Members of European Parliament, unions, environmental groups and farmers.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May is almost as pleased.

“I applaud the Wallonian regional parliament for standing firmly against this bad deal. In its current form, [the agreement] will increase pharmaceutical costs and hurt farmers, manufacturing sectors, and Canadian sovereignty.”

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce is unhappy, to put it mildly. It believes the collapse of talks between Canada and the EU represents a “serious set-back for efforts to restore economic growth.”

“It would be hard to find two partners that are better-suited to building an economic alliance, so it’s incredibly disappointing to see the agreement fall short of the finish line by a few inches,” says a chagrined Perrin Beatty, the Chamber’s CEO.

The Official Opposition Conservatives are also, officially, disappointed.

But their tears seem, perhaps, a bit crocodilian.

Conservatives point out that for most of their tenure in office they kept the talks going, productively. Now, they are not unhappy to hang what looks like failure at the eleventh hour around the neck of the Liberals.

“It’s unfortunate,” intoned Conservative trade critic Gerry Ritz, “To see all the work that we did, the blood, sweat and tears over the last seven, eight years now going down the drain.”

As for the New Democrats, well they are profoundly ambivalent, as they have been throughout these trade negotiations.

“I’m not about to blame people,” explained New Democratic MP Murray Rankin, “We have to examine all trade deals from the perspective of what’s in the interests of Canada … this government basically inherited a deal … and they had a problem with one part of Europe that didn’t think that it addressed their needs. Now the issue is: Can Canada address this issue and determine whether it’s in our interest?”

All the fuss and bother is over the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). For seven years, Canada and representatives of the 28 countries of the European Union have been negotiating a deal to lower tariff and non-tariff barriers.

Its advocates in Canada say CETA will give this country access to a market of 450 million people. (Until Britain voted to leave that figure was over 500 million.)

European supporters hope an agreement with Canada might become a template for an equally extensive agreement with a much bigger partner, the U.S.

Here’s why Canada is important to EU leaders. To take one example, the EU would like the rest of the world to recognize region-of-origin labeling on such distinctive products as Parmesan or Roquefort cheese or Spanish Turrón. These products, Europeans say, have both cultural and gastronomic significance. If Canada were to formally agree to respect this labeling, then, EU leaders hope, the U.S., the original home of the knock-off, might also be persuaded to go along.

Now, one region of Belgium appears to have put a stop to the entire enterprise.

Wallonia is not a ‘tiny enclave’

Canadian media insists on describing predominantly French-speaking Wallonia as a small region, or, in the words of The Globe and Mail, a “tiny, French-speaking enclave”.

In fact, by EU standards it is not all that small.

Wallonia’s population is 3.5 million, almost a third of the Belgian total of somewhat more than 11 million. There are seven EU countries with smaller populations.

Each of the EU’s 28 member states has veto power over CETA. That is how the EU works – on the Three Musketeers principle, one for all and all for one.

If one or more of the smaller member states, such as Slovenia or Estonia, or one of the tiny island states with far fewer than a million people, Cyprus or Malta, vetoed the deal, would we be calling them tiny and insignificant?

Belgium, like Canada, is a federation or federal country, although, unlike Canada, it became one quite recently. Its current, federal constitution only goes back to 1993.

Each of the world’s federations — and, depending on one’s definition, there are about 26 in the world, from giant India to tiny St. Kitts and Nevis — organizes itself in its own way. No two are identical.

People from other countries are often surprised to learn that the Canadian constitution assigns control over natural resources to the provinces. That seems excessively decentralized to most observers from other countries.

Canada is, in fact, one of the most decentralized federations.

In Belgium, which, in many respects, is more centralized than Canada, the constituent entities of the federation play a large role, constitutionally, in foreign relations.

That’s an unusual distribution of power. Most federations assign foreign affairs, the military and the currency almost entirely to the central (or, as we call it, federal) government.

But for Belgium it might make sense to include the regions and communities in foreign policymaking.

Belgium is a medium-sized country surrounded by bigger and more powerful neighbours. Its foreign policy choices, especially those with an economic dimension, can have a major impact on the decision-making capacity of the regions.

The people of Wallonia and their Socialist Party government are suspicious of globalization. They worry about a trade agreement that would give too much power to for-profit, multinational corporations. 

Canadians might also worry about the prospect of corporations suing governments when they are unhappy with, say, environmental regulations and processes.

Since it has taken over responsibility for the negotiations, the current Liberal government has sought to give assurance to the Wallonians (and others throughout Europe) on that investor-state issue, by enshrining the right of governments to regulate in the agreement.

The government of Wallonia is not convinced.

It says the calming words in the CETA about the ultimate prerogatives of governments vis-à-vis businesses are just that, words. They would not have any meaningful legal standing. Unelected foreign and multinational corporations will still be able to sue democratically elected governments. 

Roma refugees from EU countries are victims of CETA

And there is another issue that is not, now, a sticking point, but perhaps should have been all along.

Canada has, over the years, accepted refugee claimants from a number of EU countries, notably Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.

These claimants are mostly Roma people, the so-called Gypsies.

We have written much in this space about the Roma people’s mistreatment in Europe, especially central and eastern Europe.

The EU grants its citizens, including the Roma, a limited and qualified right to migrate from one member country to another. But no matter how genuine the Roma people’s persecution or fear of violence might be, EU rules prevent the Roma from claiming refugee status within the European Union. 

There is an EU myth that all of its member states are democracies and that all equally respect human rights. Ergo no EU citizens can ever suffer persecution or threat of violence to the extent that would entitle them to refugee protection.

Go tell that to the minorities who live in, say, Hungary.

The world got a taste of the current Hungarian regime’s attitude toward diversity when it witnessed that country’s cruel treatment of refugees trying to travel through Hungary to more welcoming countries such as Germany.

The nasty and hostile welcome Hungary offered refugees from the Middle East and Africa is pretty much what the 800,000 Roma of Hungary have faced for decades.

Roma and Jews have been part of Hungarian society for many centuries. No matter. Many Hungarians, including many in the current right-wing nationalist government, consider them to be foreign, exogenous elements.

“Go back to India!” is a common racist epithet that angry Hungarians, some of them armed with whips and guns, routinely hurl at Roma women, children and men, usually with impunity.

Over the past decade, Hungarian Roma, like those from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, discovered what seemed to be a safe haven in diverse, multicultural Canada. Many came here seeking refugees status under the Geneva Convention.

Canada accepted thousands of them, and they are now flourishing, happy to have escaped countries where they walked around with permanent targets on their backs.

The Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were not happy with the idea of EU citizens getting refugee status in Canada and so they instituted a test court case, which determined that EU Roma could, legally, be considered refugees.

The Harper government was even less happy. It worried that it was awkward for Canada to be accepting refugees from EU countries at the same time as it was negotiating a trade deal with the EU.

And so Harper’s then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney changed the law. 

He created a new category of safe designated countries of origin and implemented stringent regulations that would make it next to impossible for asylum seekers from those countries to gain acceptance. Kenney then made sure all EU countries were included on the safe country list.

The Liberals in opposition voted against those changes to the refugee rules.

But, in power, they have not changed them. Nor have they done anything to stop the massive deportations from Canada of east- and central-European Roma asylum seekers.

These are people who had established themselves here, often found work, and were happily sending their children to diverse and multi-ethnic Canadian schools, where they reported joy and relief at not being treated like outcasts and pariahs.

All of this is a never discussed aspect of CETA.

Even groups such as the Council of Canadians that worry about corporate power and unregulated globalization do not generally bring up human rights issue when discussing the trade deal.

The lesson of the Roma refugees, however, is that trade deals are dense and complex, with all kinds of consequences that go way beyond the price of cheese, butter, and pharmaceuticals.

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Keep Karl on Parl

Images: Flickr/GLOBAL 2000

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...