How Dairy Farmers in Belgium Held Up a Big E.U. Trade Deal


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On Friday, however, the deal got back on track, after Belgium — where governance is shared across linguistic and geographic communities — gave predominantly French-speaking Wallonia added guarantees on genetically modified crops and protection of certain food products from competition. The government also pledged to ask the Court of Justice of the European Union for a legal opinion on certain arbitration procedures in the agreement. Wallonia’s Parliament endorsed the deal on Friday by a vote of 58 to 5.

The farmers and workers of Wallonia, however, are not going anywhere. On Thursday, several hundred of them marched outside the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, shouting slogans like “Trudeau, stay home!” and “No to CETA,” referring to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, as the deal is known.

Luc Hollands, another dairy farmer, said he was “very disappointed” that the Walloon and Belgian governments were poised to let the deal go through, calling it “a catastrophe.”

“But at the same time,” he said, “we’re satisfied, because we’ve made our voice heard. A lot of people across Europe are now aware of the issues at stake because the Walloon Parliament blocked CETA.”

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Several hundred protesters marched outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, shouting slogans like “No to CETA,” referring to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

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Stephanie Lecocq/European Pressphoto Agency

While the European Union is Canada’s second-biggest trading partner, Wallonia, with 3.5 million people, represents only a tiny fraction of the bloc’s 508 million inhabitants. Canada accounts for just 0.20 percent of Wallonia’strade. But Wallonia’s economy has stagnated in recent decades, as its steel mills have closed down, like those of the American Rust Belt and of northern England; the region has lost ground to Dutch-speaking Flanders.

The stagnation has opened the door to trade skeptics like Mr. Wiertz, who argue that the deck is stacked against them.

Global competition has squeezed small businesses dry, said Mr. Wiertz, a fifth-generation farmer.

“We now produce milk at the world price,” he said. “Only big multinationals can afford to do that, but they don’t pay their fair share of taxes, or they take their capital abroad.”

In 2013, when milk prices dropped for the fourth year in a row, Mr. Wiertz and Mr. Hollands started a movement against free-trade agreements and austerity policies. With help from Raf Verbeke, a union activist who manages their public relations campaign, they formed a coalition called D19-20, after the dates of its first protest, Dec. 19 and Dec. 20, 2013.

Today, D19-20 counts more than 90 member organizations, including a 300,000-strong public workers’ union, a 150,000-member student alliance and the European Milk Board, an umbrella organization for dairy farmers in 15 countries. Over time, Mr. Wiertz said, the coalition persuaded left-leaning political parties to take its side. Its efforts culminated with the Wallonian Parliament’s vote to reject the deal two weeks ago — although that decision has now been reversed.

Wallonia, to be sure, does not speak for all of Belgium. Support for D19-20 is stronger in Wallonia than it is in Flanders. Others see opportunity.

“Our sector is desperately looking for new markets,” said Florent Geerdens, who owns and manages a 100-acre farm in Flanders that grows apples, pears and cherries. “Especially since we lost Russia in 2014.”

In August of that year, the European fruit industry took a hit; the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea, and Russia retaliated by banning imports of fresh food products from Europe.

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Paul Magnette, center, the minister-president of Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region, spoke during a debate about CETA at the regional Parliament in Namur, Belgium, on Friday.

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John Thys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“We lost 30 percent of our market overnight,” Mr. Geerdens said. “If borders remain closed, we’ll have no chances at all.”

According to Luc Vanoirbeek, a policy adviser for Boerenbond, a Flemish farmers’ union that supports the trade deal, CETA is a vast improvement over prior accords that narrowly focused on reducing tariffs without adequate protections for workers or the environment.

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the mistrust is widespread.

“Most beef farmers, for example, believe that the Belgian market will be overwhelmed by big Canadian beef producers,” Mr. Vanoirbeek said, even though the treaty would limit beef imported from Canada to just 0.6 percent of the European Union’s total beef consumption.

Asked about the regional differences, Mr. Vanoirbeek said: “Flanders’s agricultural economy with vegetables and fruit is more export-oriented and thus more aggressive. Wallonia has more cereals and beef and exports less, and is less aggressive and more protective.”

Mr. Hollands, the dairy farmer, said the fight against the Canada deal was not for naught. It set a precedent, he said, for talks between the European Union and the United States over an even larger trade deal: the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

“We had to fight CETA to prepare for T.T.I.P., because that free trade deal is 10 times worse,” Mr. Hollands said, ticking off his demands: stronger environmental protections; a ban on hormones in beef production and genetically modified corn; a prohibition on fracking; and a guarantee that multinational companies that will benefit from greater trade with Canada, like the Belgian brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, pay their fair share of taxes.

Martin Conway, a history professor at Oxford who has written a book on postwar Belgium, said the influence of places like Wallonia was likely to rise as nations have devolved power to regions and localities.

“Nation-states are now much more complex institutions,” he said. “Nobody quite understood, when they devolved responsibility for international commerce from the national government to the regions in Belgium, what the consequences might be.”

Now, he said, they understand.

“Free trade — and its liberal corollary, the free movement of peoples — have lost their mass appeal, and nowhere more so than in Wallonia,” Mr. Conway said. “Other regions, like Catalonia in Spain and Scotland, will all be observing events in Wallonia and thinking of their own roles.”

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