Belgian Region of Wallonia Takes Anti-Globalization Stand Grounded in History – Wall Street Journal

Protesters holding up a banner earlier this month opposing the EU’s free trade deal with Canada in the Wallonian capital of Namur, Belgium.
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NAMUR, Belgium—Dilapidated 19th-century factories with broken windowpanes line the train tracks on the outskirts of this city, the seat of the regional parliament of Wallonia. In the center, amid quaint artisanal shops, butchers, and bakers, a solitary Starbucks
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is a rare reminder of the globalized economy.

Welcome to Wallonia, the Belgian region of 3.6 million people that has vaulted into the international limelight by blocking Europe’s long-awaited trade agreement with Canada. The so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, known as CETA, needs the backing of all the European Union’s 28 member states. Wallonia’s parliament—one of five in a country deeply divided on language lines—has prevented the country’s federal government from supporting the deal, leaving it stalled despite years of intense negotiation and the backing of all other EU member states.

A banner reading 'Thank you - Stop CETA’ on the facade of the Walloon parliament building in Namur, Belgium, on October 18.
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The revolt by the Socialist-led regional parliament representing just 0.7% of the EU’s population is a microcosm of a broader backlash against globalization, under which the region hasn’t flourished. After hitting its heights in the era of coal-fired steel production and manufacturing, Wallonia has suffered hard times in recent decades, with higher unemployment and lower per capita gross domestic product than Belgium, or the EU, as a whole.

Walloon lawmakers say the deal with Canada could harm the region’s beef and pork farmers and poses a risk to environmental and labor standards. They also oppose its proposed system for settling investment disputes, which they say would end up giving multinationals more power to sue EU governments.

These stances reflect not just Wallonia’s current plight, but also its history. Belgium broke away from the Netherlands during the political upheaval in the 19th century that followed the downfall of French emperor Napoleon, whose armies conquered much of continental Europe. In 1830 a mostly Catholic kingdom was created, merging Wallonia, dominated by French speakers, with Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Wallonia boomed during the industrial revolution in the 19th century because of its vast supply of coal and associated technologies. Southern Belgian cities such as Charleroi and Liège, now struggling compared with their northern counterparts such as Ghent and Antwerp, were large mining and manufacturing centers and home to a thriving bourgeoisie.

“At one point, Wallonia was the second richest region of the world,” said Christophe Collignon, president of the Socialist party in the Walloon parliament. Meanwhile, Flanders was mostly agricultural, and its language, Flemish, was considered a “sub-language,” according to Mr. Collignon.

Their relative status began to flip in the 1960s as Wallonia’s industries sank and the more populous northern part of the country gained the political upper hand and pulled in new multinationals, such as car makers. Now, the more dynamic Flanders has a thriving separatist movement whose members want to split from Belgium and to stop subsidizing their southern compatriots.

Wallonia—like America’s Rust Belt and cities such as Detroit—is trying to create a more entrepreneurial thrust, no easy task with the strong presence of trade unions that cast free trade as a unbridled race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights and wages. Support for the center-left Socialist Party remains strong, and many voters lean toward policies supporting welfare and universal health care, which create a heavy tax burden.

Since 2014, for the first time in decades, the Socialist Party hasn’t been part of the federal government coalition and its last-ditch stance on CETA has given it new prominence. The party also faces a challenge on its left flank, another likely motivation for Socialist leader Paul Magnette, who has become a celebrity among the continent’s anti-globalization activists.

We are certainly not closed off or protectionist.

—Walloon entrepreneur Pierre Rion

“The north of Belgium is more Anglo-Saxon and has a different way of thinking while the south is more directly influenced by France,” said Olivier Rubay, a spokesman for the Socialist Party in the Walloon parliament. “Also, the north of Belgium faces the sea so there is an open-minded approach to the world.”

Pierre Rion, a Walloon entrepreneur, scoffs at that notion, rattling off examples that show the region’s dynamism and strength. “It isn’t by chance the Google decided to set itself up in Mons,” he said, referring to the Wallonian town where the corporation built a major data center. “We are certainly not closed off or protectionist.”

Mr. Rion said he was sympathetic, however, to the decision to block the agreement with Canada, because it was complicated and needed a proper assessment and review.

The Walloons, for all their unique history, are merely voicing concerns of other European populations, Mr. Rubay said, by taking a stand against what he said was the EU’s detached and technocratic leadership.

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