Wallonia’s Mr ‘Non’ blocks EU-Canada deal


A decade ago Paul Magnette, the head of Belgium’s French-speaking region of Wallonia, was a ruggedly good-looking university professor best known for being versed in EU arcana.

Now the 45-year-old is an unexpected torch-bearer for the anti-free trade movement after using Belgium’s complex political system to hold up a huge EU-Canada deal, threatening the bloc’s global reputation in the process.

“There’s a real political pride in finally saying ‘stop’,” said Magnette, basking in the international limelight of a stance that is bringing attention to his cherished but downtrodden Wallonia.

Magnette was born in the Flemish-speaking town of Leuven, but grew up in Wallonia’s rustbelt city of Charleroi, once an industrial powerhouse but now a forgotten landscape of shuttered plants and factories.

Magnette was first and foremost an academic, a doctor of political science who taught Europe’s elite at the Sciences Po university in Paris and Cambridge in Britain.

For a while he was also a go-to analyst for journalists on the hunt for a quick quote on the euro or the future of Europe.

Everything changed in 2007, when Belgium’s socialist kingmaker, Elio Di Rupo, plucked Magnette from obscurity and sent him on mission to Charleroi, where party veterans of the old school were mired in embarrassing corruption scandals.

In just weeks, the cerebral intellectual became a hardball player of politics, whose handsome looks and three-day stubble also won him easy access to the nightly news.

Under the pressure, the socialist party apparatchiks stepped down and Magnette moved quickly into official office, first as health minister for Wallonia then as energy minister for the federal government in Brussels.

– ‘Trendy’ bread maker –

There he brazenly picked a fight with Electrabel, the highly profitable and powerful French-owned utility, winning a massive payout to beef up Belgium’s strained public finances.

In 2010 he became senator and two years later, the mayor of Charleroi, a job and a city he is very closely associated with, though he has given up day-to-day responsibilities as head of Wallonia.

With a noticeable gift for speech-making, the bow-tie wearing Di Rupo, who was then prime minister, made Magnette party leader to lead the charge for the socialists in the 2014 general elections.

Using his solid Dutch, he made many francophones proud, fighting bravely in a debate against Antwerp mayor and Flemish-nationalist Bart De Wever, Belgium’s most powerful and feared politician.

But the socialists fared poorly in 2014 and Di Rupo took back the reins of the socialist party. As consolation Magnette landed his current job, head of government of Wallonia.

Quickly, polls showed a rising leftist threat to his political hold on the region. For the past year the fight against the Canada deal known as CETA and the similar EU-US deal, known as TTIP, has helped shore up his leftwing credentials.

Magnette, despite the hard-won firebrand persona, still enjoys leisures more closely associated with his past in academia.

To find his focus, the twice-married father-of-four often wakes up at dawn a few to bake loaves of sourbread — organic, of course.

“Making bread is my way to relax,” he told L’Echo newspaper last year. “I know it’s trendy, but I can live with that.”

© 2016 AFP

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