In a bizarre row, Belgium’s capital abstained in a crunch vote that allowed the European Commission to start negotiations with Donald Trump. Brussels, the host city for the EU’s main institutions, sparked an angry backlash from Belgium’s regional governments for opposing the talks. On Monday, the European Council gave the Commission the go-ahead to start the trade negotiations, which are aiming to eliminate tariffs on industrial goods with the United States.
Only Emmanuel Macron’s France, who voted against the mandate, and Belgium, who abstained, showed signs of opposition.
EU27 diplomats merely questioned the decision of the caretaker Belgian government, but its regional understudies have openly attacked prime minister Charles Michel’s approach to the talks.
Flemish prime minister Geert Bourgeois claimed “Brussels opposes Flemish trade interests and risks Flemish prosperity” by abstaining in the vote.
Mr Bourgeois claimed that Brussels’ export share to the US is barely 1.34 percent, while the Flemish economy is “very open and has every interest in free trade”.
Kris Peeter’s, Belgium’s economy minister, claimed the country’s French-speaking community agreed with the Brussels-capital region to reject the talks.
He said: “The Brussels-capital region and the French community were not in agreement with the negotiating mandate.”
Belgium’s French-speaking Walloon province was behind a high-profile attempt to sink the EU’s trade deal with Canada in 2016, over investor protections that allow multi-national governments to sue other governments in special courts.
According to one diplomat, Wallonia refused to back the negotiations as the region decided to support France’s opposition to the talks.
Mr Macron objects the negotiations with Mr Trump because of the US President’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017.
Pieter Cleppe, of the Open Europe think-tank, said: “It’s incredible how politicians governing the Brussels region, which is host to the EU institutions, let their protectionist instincts prevail over the great prospects from more open trade with the United States.
“Anyone living in Brussels won’t, of course, be surprised when witnessing how a city with great potential hasn’t been receiving the quality of governance it deserves for decades now.”
The Commission is hoping to conclude the US trade negotiations before Jean-Claude Juncker vacates his role as president in October, according to trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom.
Last year, Mr Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium produced by EU countries and threatened to impose punitive tariffs on European motor vehicle exports to the US.
In July, Mr Juncker flew to Washington for crunch trade talks to prevent Mr Trump from implementing further tariffs, which could have had serious consequences for the German car industry.
Both leaders agreed to call a truce and pledged to work towards a free-trade agreement instead.
On Monday, EU countries gave the Commission the go-ahead to strike a deal that eliminates tariffs on industrial goods, excluding agricultural and fishing goods, as well as making it easier for companies in the EU and US to meet the other’s technical requirements.