The former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O'Neill is credited with saying “All politics is local.” But how local can you get? The recent vote in Wallonia, Belgium, against the European Union (EU) - Canada trade deal has led to Belgium’s withdrawing support and the potential collapse of the deal. The local parliament voted against the agreement, and since all 28 EU member countries must sign a trade agreement, Belgium has effectively vetoed the deal. The 27 other members of the EU were on board.
To be precise: Representatives of 3.5 million people, in a trading bloc representing more than 500 million people, were able to block an international trade agreement between the EU and Canada. And the future of a larger agreement between the EU and the United States will also be called into question.
For those deeply attached to regionalism and fervent supporters of federalism, this is a positive outcome. After all, to be truly democratic is to listen to all levels of the population. Just as Switzerland requires local permission for the building of national highways – look at how long it takes for a major autoroute to get permission to pass through communes – the EU requires unanimous decisions by its members who, by extension, often require local approval. There was certainly no democracy gap in the Wallonia vote.
On the other hand, the fact that 3.5 million people could stop an agreement affecting 500 million people is not truly democratic since a small percentage of the overall population has hindered the process. There has been no rule by the majority here. A small minority has stopped the wishes of the majority. And what will this mean for the EU as it will seek its trade agreement with the United Kingdom after the Brexit vote? Will other regional groups have to be on board within all member states?
A senior advisor at FTI Consulting in Brussels, John Clancy, said: “Even if a solution is found in the coming weeks and months, the credibility of the EU as the world’s largest trading bloc has been damaged by the political grandstanding of the Walloon parliament…What you’ll find now is international trading partners to the EU will be incredibly cautious because there’s absolutely no guarantee that a trade deal won’t be taken hostage at any number of points.”
Peter Mandelson, former EU trade commissioner, noted that: “EU trade policy won’t survive in a world where trade agreements have to be ‘democratised’ by every single national parliament and sub-legislature across the EU before they see the light of day.” Attempts were made to negotiate with the local parliament, but, Ms. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s trade minister, walked out of talks with Walloon leaders last week.
While the case of the Wallonia vote and European trade policy is particular, it is indicative of the growing tensions between the local and the universal. We see more and more movements for secession, such as Britain and Catalonia. At the same time economists and political scientists tell us the intellectual advantages of customs unions and multilateralism, emotional movements for closer identity and regionalism are growing. The North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) are being heavily criticized; the Doha Round at the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been stalled since 2001.
The local and the universal are always in tension. Federalism is an attempt to keep the two together. When one dominates the other, as in the case of the Wallonia vote or Brexit, we should not be surprised. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were precursors of this tendency.
Brexit and the Wallonia vote are part of that larger pattern wherein local and regional considerations trump larger inclusions. Whatever economists and political scientists tell us are the advantages of larger inclusions, the local and regional will remain determining factors, as Tip O’Neill so prophetically stated.