Belgium is giving a bad example!



On the eve of May 1st, a decision by the regional Walloon Parliament and a proposal by the Belgian political party CDH (Centre Démocartique et Humaniste), concerning the free trade agreements negotiated by the Commission, are illustrations of the flaws in the European institutional architecture and the suicidal path being followed by its Members.


The refusal by the Walloon Parliament to approve the FTA with Canada (CETA) is perfectly legitimate insofar as, in Belgium, ratification of international treaties by the “federated” entities is required if they cover areas relating to their competencies. This opposition (to which will be added that of Romania and Bulgaria who have been denied the privileges of visa free travel) demonstrates the sheer inanity of the ratification process. Fully justified in a Union of Six and conceivably possible in a Union of fifteen relatively homogeneous countries, it becomes totally unmanageable in a Union of 28 members with often divergent if not contradictory interests. The absurdity becomes lunacy when Belgium decides unilaterally to grant a veto to its “federated” entities which are not independent EU members.


This problem was fully recognised when the latest revision of the Treaty incorporated a significant extension of both simple and qualified majority voting within the European legislative procedures. The possibility of withdrawal from the Union included in the Lisbon Treaty (which the U.K. might use in case of Brexit) renders urgent and indispensable the removal of all remaining “veto” rights, thus eliminating any further risks of blackmail. The ratification of CETA (or of any future international treaty) should be subject to a vote with a double majority representing a qualified number of Member States and an appropriate majority of the population. This procedure would also apply to the admission of new Member States. Dissenting members would face a binary choice: submit to the majority or withdraw from the Union, each member remaining free to fix their own modalities for ratification.


The lack of cohesion among members handicaps severely the Union in its TTIP negotiations, allowing the United States to take full advantage of disagreements among its counterparts. The Americans are able to neutralize the obvious advantages that the size and wealth of the “single market” should confer on the Europeans. This weakness is also apparent in the difficulties to come up with firm decisions relative to the controversy with China over steel as well as in other examples of dumping.


As for the proposal of the CDH to submit the ratification of the TTIP to a referendum in Wallonia, it is establishing a far more dangerous precedent. Having recourse to a referendum is unquestionably a manifestation of democracy but only to the extent that there is a concordance between the opinions expressed by the Electoral College and the interests of those who will be affected by the result. What the CDH is proposing is that a (negative) decision expressed by a small minority of citizens (the Walloon elector) could be imposed on the EU as a whole through the pretense of a “democratic” process. Organizing at the level of the Belgian federal State (after appropriate amendments to the constitution) a “non-binding” referendum on the Dutch model, would be a more acceptable possibility though one can question the value and reach of such an exercise. The truly democratic alternative would be a Union-wide referendum. This, nevertheless, comes up against a number of obstacles the least of which are not the complexity of the matters under review, the formulation of the question on the ballot and the risk of diverting the vote from its initial purpose transforming, for instance, the campaign into a referendum on EU membership.


But it is the CDH’s demeanor that poses the gravest problem. By de facto suggesting the repatriation of powers previously conferred on the Commission (the negotiation of trade agreements) it is adding to the growing appeal of the policies advocated by nationalist and populist parties when it is precisely the opposite that is required: the EU must implement reforms aiming at the further integration of the Eurozone, the common management of immigration, of exterior border controls, of defense, foreign affairs, energy, digitalization, etc. The treaties must be amended to ensure that the management of the Union is compatible with the interests of the majority of its citizens. Submitting any decision to the unanimous approval by Member States (and/or their regional subdivisions) is utopia; it leads inescapably to paralysis and in turn to the dismemberment of the Union.


Thus, unwittingly, the CDH is aligning its positions on those of the “Euro sceptic” camp, reinforcing considerably the credibility of its most extreme partisans. Originating in a political party of a country which has traditionally been supportive of the EU, this proposal will weaken the Union contributing to making it unmanageable.


By shaking the broad consensus surrounding EU membership, Belgium is giving a bad example; this is liable to reduce considerably its historic influence which has always been far above its economic and demographic weight. This flattering position is the heritage of astute compromises among its various populations and communities and through the successful management of political, linguistic, cultural and economic diversity all along its 183 years of existence, which has maintained a “dynamic” evolving equilibrium between solidarity and autonomy. Belgium should continue to serve as an inspiration for meeting the challenges of European integration.


Finally, the posture of the CDH concerning a TIPP referendum is bound to strengthen the claims of the Flemish nationalists. Indeed everything that contributes to the paralysis of the Union prefigures its breakup which is a necessary precondition for Belgium’s own implosion which is the aim of the separatists.


Brussels, 1st May 2016


Paul N. Goldschmidt

Director, European Commission (ret.); Member of the Steering Committee of the Thomas More Institute.






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