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In Belgium, where opinions are divided on trade, the role of honest brokers at the helm of the EU is in focus – POLITICO

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This article is part of the special report of the Belgian EU Presidency..

BRUSSELS — French-speaking Belgians and Dutch-speaking Belgians have a hard time agreeing on anything, and trade is no exception.

But it could make it easier for Belgium to reach an agreement with other European countries when it takes control of the Council of the European Union early next year.

The very fact that Belgium falls into both the free trade and protectionist camps makes it unlikely that it will play an honest intermediary role as the EU seeks to push key trade documents through to the final stage before next June’s European elections. It may help you fulfill your role.

In the south, the French-speaking Wallonia region is more critical of free trade. If a trade deal is signed, left-wing regions will insist on strict environmental and human rights standards.

But the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders north of Brussels is largely led by right-wing nationalists who see trade deals as a means to business prosperity. With the large port of Antwerp, Flanders’ wealth is based on exports.

And the central government is made up of a broad coalition led by liberal, pro-business parties from both regions that take EU leadership seriously.

“Because we have a presidential office, it may reduce the dissension within Belgium that might otherwise arise,” said Ferdie de Ville, a professor of European political economy at Ghent University.

He added that the French-speaking left and the Greens, which are typically reluctant to trade deals, “may not dare to take a hard line because it could damage the image of the president.”

Such disagreements matter in the EU arena, as the final say on trade policy rests with regional regions. This means Belgium is often paralyzed when it comes to important decisions in the Council, and is usually the last EU member state to allow trade deals to enter into force.

frucious dynamic

Free trade agreements tend to be highly politicized in Belgium, as was the case in 2016 when the EU held its breath for months over Wallonia’s veto of a major trade deal with Canada. The agreement was only terminated after intense negotiations. At the time, the region, led by Socialist Party stalwart Paul Magnette, warned that the deal could set a precedent that would undermine legal, health and environmental standards.

The country has not yet ratified the agreement, which has been provisionally in force for six years.

In a 60-page program seen by POLITICO outlining Belgium’s next president’s priorities, the trade section contains general conditions, most of which reflect the European Commission’s position.

But Belgium’s own position is unlikely to materialize any further as the country prepares for federal elections on June 9, the day voters across the continent will elect a new European Parliament.

PS Chairman Paul Magnette | Virgin Lefour/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

When a particular file becomes politicized, “instead of turning a weakness into an asset, you turn a weakness into a bomb,” de Ville said.

Earlier this month, Belgium said it would no longer have to deal with a controversial trade deal with the South American Mercosur bloc, made up of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, after negotiations between the EU and Mercosur countries faced further setbacks. I feel like I can breathe a sigh of relief. And Paraguay. If there is significant progress on an agreement before the election, Belgium is unlikely to push for a council vote in advance.

“In addition to the differences between the region and the federal government, where Belgium often abstains from voting, there are also campaign challenges in that some people are not interested in bringing up Mercosur issues during elections.” campaign,” said Saskia Bricmont. She is a member of Belgium’s French-speaking Green party Ecolo and serves on the European Parliament’s trade committee.

ambiguous attitude

It is ironic that Belgium is holding up the trade deal, said multiple Belgian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive domestic issues. The country has one of the most open economies in the EU.

Belgium’s highest-level politicians are aware of this, despite their own frustrations.

“We seem to have completely forgotten that our country, with its unique geographical location, owes much of its prosperity to free trade,” said Belgian Foreign Minister Haja Rahbib, a member of the francophone liberal MR party. Told. She oversees the country’s trade portfolio and will chair the EU Trade Council.

“It is not in our interests to pursue protectionist policies. It is therefore unfortunate that there is no agreement on this issue in our countries,” she said in a speech to Belgian ambassadors in November.

But domestic holdup may not matter much, at least for a few months. From January 1, Belgium will be limited to the role of a neutral arbitrator in negotiations between EU governments and European institutions.

This represents a strong contrast to the Spanish presidential era. While Spain pursued a free trade policy with limited success, Belgium is likely to become more restrained.

Belgium recently moved forward to ratify a 10-year agreement with Central America and another with Andean countries, becoming the last EU member state to do so. Eleventh-hour concerns in Belgium over the deal with Chile also caused headaches for the Spanish president.

“It’s clear that we don’t have the same power relations as we did under the Spanish presidency,” Bricmont concluded.





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