By Dominik Kirchdorfer
A few days ago the political narrative was still dominated by the nation state. But now things have changed. Suddenly regions count in the European discourse. But not because people actually care about regions and their autonomy. The only reason why the idea of a Europe of Regions is even circulating publicly at the moment, is because people perceive regions as the new way to stick it to the man. Everywhere in Europe, opponents of globalisation herald Wallonia as the great hero who has saved them from the horrors of free trade.
Yet free trade used to be widely accepted. In total we have 41 trade agreements of varying degrees between the EU and other countries, not counting those that have been negotiated but not applied yet or the many bilateral agreements already in existence. Why is this becoming a problem now? Did the people only just now awaken from their slumbers to find themselves disagreeing with one of the fundamental principles of Capitalist economics?
The people who feel this way do not even seem to be scared of CETA itself. The most common arguments against the agreement are akin to the same kinds of fairy tales we have been fed since the dawn of rational thought in the 17th century and its struggle to liberate the masses from the oppression of illiteracy and superstition. Lower standards, worse quality of products and evil foreigners and their corporations coming to poison your wells and kidnap your children.
However, as soon as one quotes the actual contents of CETA, their opponents quickly run out of arguments. They then typically respond by either criticising the lack of transparency during the negotiations or by saying that regulations and standards would drop retroactively, not due to CETA itself, but because of the influence of big US corporations and their lawyers on European decision-makers.
There are legitimate questions to be asked before any big deal, but no one has raised them. I have spoken to social democrats from across Europe, who are baffled by the public debate and found themselves powerless to shape it. This is the power of populism. If a sentiment is repeated often enough it will entrench itself in people’s minds. Whether it is free trade, the EU, or immigration, if it is painted as a dark picture, it will be perceived in that dim light.
Whether one agrees with the CETA agreement or not, the public debate has been one-sided, much like it was during the EU referendum campaign in the United Kingdom. The anti-globalisation movement has just shifted sides. The Brexit camp shouting “Take back control!” at every opportunity was pleading for the model of the nation state, towering above regions (like Scotland and Northern Ireland) and forcing them to accept decisions that did not reflect their views at all. But all of a sudden, the region of Wallonia has become a symbol for the anti-globalisation movement: “More power to the regions! More transparency, inclusiveness and local decision-making! We don’t trust our national leaders, they are all corrupt and weak and will be consumed by their corporate overlords!”
Has the nation state just been rendered irrelevant? Because if it had been up to the national governments of all 28 member states, CETA would have been ratified by now. And yes, that includes the federal government of Belgium, representing all Belgian citizens.
According to EU law, trade agreements need to be accepted by all national governments. There is no mention of any of the regions; for good reason. The more moving parts there are and the smaller they are, the harder it gets to reach unanimity, which in this case is necessary. In such a European Union we truly will never be able to sign another trade (or any other) agreement, nor will any other nation want to. This is a fundamental flaw in the Belgian federal makeup. Subsidiarity means that the right decisions are taken at the appropriate level. Trade agreements are surely either supranational or national competency, but certainly have no place on the local or regional level. Allowing a region this kind of power is irrational and is not sustainable.
The idea of Europe of the Regions is not new, but the concept has never foreseen anything like we experienced today. The idea is to give competencies over large issues like trade, climate change, military defence etc. to the highest (European) level and to involve citizens stronger in their local and regional representations, where they can have a greater influence over how they want to structure their private lives.
The defeat of CETA did not herald the dawn of a new Europe of the Regions. Instead it revealed that people’s trust in the global system has gone. Claims of history repeating itself were wrong. It is not nationalism that will spark the flames of war anew in the 21st century. What we are experiencing is a wholehearted rejection of society, from scientific facts, over the free market, to the nation state. The people are the sovereign and one by one they are starting to choose anarchy and regression over democracy. They are determined to punish a few for leaving them behind and they are willing to doom themselves and everyone else along the way.1989 Generation