The Surprising Walloons

World map with currency symbols
International Business Image by Pete Linforth

A week ago I would have guessed that the Walloons were characters in a Dr. Seuss story. I would have been so wrong.  They are, in fact, French-speaking Belgians. The only reason I know that is because this week they have shown that they have the power to block a trade deal between the European Union and Canada.

This agreement has been negotiated over the last seven years and everyone thought it was more-or-less a done deal until a week before the documents were to be signed. That’s when the Walloons stepped in and said “Er . . . we don’t think so!” And that was that.

Some of the reasons they want to put a hold on the deal are, on the face of it, quite reasonable. Most significantly, they fear that the deal is a Trojan horse that would allow a back-door access to US multinationals with offices in Canada. The reason they don’t want that is because then the US companies could sue European governments, and Americans have been known to do that once or twice before. So, it’s a concern.

It’s as though two families had agreed to an arranged marriage until a second-cousin stepped in and said “You can’t do that. We don’t trust that family because they once interfered with my brother’s business.”  All of a sudden, everyone is taking sides and the wedding is off. What the couple wants doesn’t have much impact on this because now it is much bigger than just the two of them.  This is family stuff, and you don’t mess with family stuff.

In our modern world with democracy and equal rights, it would be nice to think the couple could do whatever they want, but this is not that world. This is medieval tribalism with strong men and regional armies. Or, it’s playground gang logic: “I want to be your friend, but your brother beat up my brother so I can’t.” Or, it’s Shakespearian warring families with intrigue, deceit, mistrust, and fear. Maybe it’s all three.

As a Canadian taxpayer I am frustrated that we have been paying for seven years of negotiations and anticipating potentially improved trade with Europe—maybe even cheaper Marmite—but now it’s all gone down the tubes because of that second cousin I didn’t even know existed.

I hope you are paying attention to all this, United Kingdom.  Now that you are Brexiting, you can look forward to many years of negotiations with Europe that may or may not come to fruition. Just when you think you’ve got it sorted out, the Walloons might come out of the woodwork and throw a wrench into the works. They may look like friendly Dr. Seuss characters, but they have hidden powers.






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