AHEAD OF THE HEARD — Recently Canadians were given a geography lesson about a small area called Wallonia. It’s about the size of one of Alberta’s larger counties and is located in southern Belgium. The fact that most Canadians and media commentators were unaware of its location was a little disconcerting being Wallonia is situated close to Canadian hallowed ground near sacred war memorials and military cemeteries at Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Mons and Passchendaele. I would suggest that the blood of Canadian war heroes was shed to free Wallonia during the two World Wars. I expect many Canadians and Walloons have forgotten those sacrifices.
The new found awareness of Wallonia has to do with their obstinacy in opposing the approval of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) more commonly called the Canada/EU free trade treaty. Because of the intractable and duplicitous domestic politics of present-day Belgium the two main regions of Belgium, Wallonia and Flanders, were given veto power over certain external issues like trade. Most countries leave such issues to a national government. Canada likes to pretend it is above such insular politics, but if Quebec were opposed to CETA I expect our national government would capitulate to their demands in the same way the Belgian government gave in to Wallonia’s demands.
The issue driving Wallonian opposition to CETA had more to do with the basis of their economy that being traditional agriculture. Wallonia has a long convoluted economic history; in the middle 1800s it was the centre of European industrialization with its coal mines and advanced steel mills. That was in stark contrast to the neighbouring region of Flanders, which at the time was quite poor with small-scale agriculture as the main industry. A note of disclosure: your humble writer’s distant ancestors came from Flanders. However from around the 1880s to the present, the industrial basis of Wallonia disappeared and switched to an agrarian economy. Flanders became the modern industrial heartland of Belgium and centre of commercial intensive agriculture, similar to the Netherlands. Wallonia seems to wallow in a recession with almost 40 per cent of the population working for government. Much to the exasperation of Flemish taxpayers, Wallonia is propped up by cash transfer payments from Flanders – sounds familiar.
Because of history and economic fortunes the relationship between the two regions became toxic many years ago. The country is in a state of perpetual political upheaval because the two language groups Flemish (a Dutch dialect) and French are completely incompatible. To placate the two sides, the national government has given away almost all its powers, including a veto over trade treaties to the two regions. Part of that appeasement are generous programs to support traditional agriculture in Wallonia, add on top of that EU subsidies and you have an ag sector that is inefficient and resistant to change. For instance, with all the subsidies it’s quite possible for cattle farmers in Wallonia with only 50 beef cows to make a middle class income on marginal acres. No wonder they feel threatened when they suspect that their lifestyle could be wiped out by beef imports from Canada. It gets stranger of course – the Wallonian government wants to make their region an organic agriculture fortress by banning any modern commercial agriculture practices. The idea being that will give them a marketing advantage in the elitist premium organic food production market. As you might expect Walloons see Monsanto and other symbols of globalization as the root of all evil which they want to stop. On that front they seem to be fools of the usual luddite groups like Greenpeace, who played a part in financing and instigating the protests against CETA.
However, in the usual Belgian politically expedient fashion the Wallonian ag sector was bought off with promises of even more subsidies and some sort of veto over anything that might impact their traditional agricultural production. The latter should be worrisome to Canadian food exports as it will be used to further thwart free and fair trade by using phoney health and protocol restrictions like GM and beef growth supplements. That has worked very well in the past as Canadian oilseed and beef producers have painfully realized over the past 20 years.
Interestingly, Australia has been negotiating with the EU for a similar trade agreement as CETA. They want the same deal as Canada; including protecting and expanding their share of beef exports to the EU. I suggest that projections of billions of dollars of new ag exports to the EU may be wishful thinking.