National Column: Charleroi’s misery explains CETA impasse

by Paul Wells

Justin Trudeau’s impromptu humility tour continues. In Hamilton the other day, he visited the mayor and a bystander threw pumpkin seeds at him. In Medicine Hat, he visited byelection voters and they threw a Conservative at him. In Ottawa, he spoke to young members of the Canadian Labour Congress and dozens turned their backs.

At this writing, he’s still planning to visit Brussels on Thursday. The way his month is going, he shouldn’t hope for much more than french fries.

The prime minister’s ambitions are higher: to save CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade
Agreement between Canada and the European Union. That treaty, one of the most ambitious Canada has ever negotiated, hit a brick Walloon the other day in the person of Paul Magnette, the minister-president of the francophone Belgian region – we’d say “province,” before collapsing into the traditional hysterical crying jag that befalls anyone attempting to compare Belgian institutions with anyone else’s – of Wallonia.

Magnette is ruggedly handsome, only six months older than Trudeau, and – uh-oh – a political science professor whose doctoral thesis carried the ominous title “Citizenship and European Construction.” Surely, if there’s one iron rule of politics, it’s “Don’t get an academic started on his thesis topic.”

CETA was doing well enough until Belgium’s national parliament sought to vote its approval of the thing.

The Walloons said no. Chrystia Freeland, Trudeau’s trade minister, left a Brussels meeting in tears, telling reporters the EU “isn’t capable now of having an international treaty . . . even with a country so nice” as Canada.

Freeland stayed overnight in Brussels, flew home and by Monday was feeling much more chipper, as people who leave Brussels often do. The past few days have consisted of anxious Europeans from other parts of the continent asking the Walloons, “Are you sure?” and the Walloons answering, “Pretty sure.”

A clue to their stubbornness can be found in Magnette’s other day job. He’s the mayor of Charleroi, an hour’s drive south of Brussels. The readers of the Dutch newspaper Die Volkskrant once voted Charleroi the ugliest city in Europe. It comes by the designation honestly and hard.

For 200 years after the 1750s, Charleroi was a centre of heavy industry, mostly glass, steel and coal. From this, everything follows. Strong labour unions. Deep ties with resource regions around the world: Miners from the Charleroi region emigrated in the 19th century to Alberta and Cape Breton. And, as heavy industry declined in the late 20th century, economic collapse and intractable misery.

These days, you can book a “Charleroi city safari” to see factories that have been abandoned for 30 years but were never torn down. You can climb to the top of a waste coal pile, see where Rene Magritte’s mother lived before she committed suicide, visit a subway station that was built but never used because the city ran out of money.

Chrystia Freeland has been a figure of sport in some circles for her tearful exit from Brussels. I disagree. I didn’t know her well before she came to Ottawa, but I’ve almost never seen a harder-working cabinet minister in any government in my 22 years here. She has gone the extra mile for this treaty a dozen times.

But there are reasons for this impasse and one is that she is a certain type. She lived for decades in world-class cities, London, Moscow, New York, Toronto. She’s a regular on CNN. She knows half the Harvard faculty by their first names. She earned her entrÈes fair and square, through study and hard work. But Charleroi has heard from people like Chrystia Freeland before.

It never did them much good. The benefits of free trade and of guarantees in law for international investors are deep and broad. The costs are concentrated and deep too, like a cut, and they fall in places like Charleroi.

Places like Charleroi voted for Brexit. They voted for a Greek government that also stood, for a time, in defiance against the towers of Brussels. Places like Charleroi will vote for Donald Trump no matter what you think.

I think getting CETA as far as he got it was some of the best work Stephen Harper ever did. Getting it further has marked Freeland as a star in the Trudeau cabinet. Now, it’s stuck. Trudeau is right to try to get it out of the mud. But the people who stuck it there had their reasons. Fate and a rule book a mile thick gave them a chance to say no. They won’t change their minds. If this treaty passes, it will be despite them, and it will be a familiar feeling.

Charleroi has lost fights before. It knows how that feels.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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