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Belgium Guides New EU Course

Belgium’s presidency of the European Council will not suffer from domestic Belgian political turmoil; indeed, the EU’s adjustment to the Lisbon Treaty’s new framework will likely be eased the fact that the Council’s new president is Belgian.

The European Council has long used a 'troika' format for its rotating presidency, where the past, current and future presidents compose a changing committee that has improved coordination from once presidency to the next.

However, the Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, has created a new legal framework, which requires institutional adjustment. In particular, it has created two new institutional figures: a full-time permanent president of the European Council, elected for 30 months with the possibility of a single renewal, now Herman Van Rompuy; and the High Representative of the EU on Foreign Affairs and Security, charged with ensuring the consistency of the EU's external action, now Catherine Ashton.

Continuing Belgian domestic political crisis

Belgium is confronting another round of its domestic political crisis. (See Can Belgium Still Exist?, 17 September 2008.) Over the past two years, the parliament has been unable to legislate the implementation of the Constitutional Court's decision concerning electoral lists. As a result, the irregular legal situation of candidates of French-speaking parties in the unified Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) electoral district around Brussels has not been resolved.

Erstwhile prime minister Yves Leterme (Christian-Democrat Flemish party, CDV) was compelled to resign in December 2008 as a result of perceived irregularities in his government's attempt to resolve the financial crisis around Belgium's important Fortis Bank by selling its assets to the French BNP Paribas. He was succeeded by Herman Van Rompuy (CDV), who resigned late last year after being elected the first permanent President of the European Council: whereupon Leterme, whom Van Rompuy had appointed as foreign minister, once again became prime minister. However, his new government collapsed after the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats party (Open VLD) withdrew from the governing coalition in April 2010 over the failure to achieve a negotiated solution to the BHV problem.

The current Belgian government is only a caretaker government, but the Belgian presidency of the European Council has been well prepared by experienced diplomats and officials. With the nature of domestic Belgian politics requiring the ability to promote compromise, some observers suggest that this was one element in the choice of Herman Van Rompuy as European President.

New EU institutional framework

One such observer is Alexander von Lingen, formerly principal of the Secretariat of the Presidency of the European Parliament and currently director of the EquipEuropa analysis and training consultancy in Brussels. He explains to ISN Security Watch that even if Van Rompuy is still unfamiliar to the general public, he has nevertheless "demonstrated his mediation skills in the multinational environment of Belgium described as a microcosm of the EU. Not least, he is a convinced European and has demonstrated in the past that he is able to recognize what is at stake both at the European and global levels."

Von Lingen further says that in the new institutional framework, "neither foreign nor security policy in the strict sense falls within the remit of the rotating [troika] presidency."

Indeed, "the only tasks left to the rotating presidency are for its national ministers to preside individual council meetings such as the General Affairs Council," which amounts to "chairing dozens of meetings involving diplomats, the Committee of Permanent Representatives as well as hundreds of preparatory committees for experts, … and also coordinating with the European Parliament for areas of co-decision and with the European Commission for the follow-up," and all within the new institutional framework.

In his view, even if ministers in the new Belgian government (anticipated in autumn) are not experienced in European-level decision-making, nevertheless "there are no [Belgian] political parties that declare themselves eurosceptic."

As a result, Belgium may, "despite its internal chaos, [be] able to concentrate on and conduct the European presidency (the permanent as well as the rotating) as successfully as it has done in the past."

Continuity expected despite continuing crises

Still, Belgium's presidency of the rotating troika is complicated by a third element in addition to the country's own domestic political turmoil and the EU's new institutional structure. That third element is the continuing global economic and financial crisis in Europe, and particularly its impact on the euro zone. (See Stress-Testing European Banks, 4 August 2010; Greek General Strike Turns Tragic, 7 May 2010.)

Von Lingen points out that this continuing crisis has motivated an EU-wide concern with "re-establishing growth by tackling the ongoing global economic crisis with a package of measures to increase the surveillance of financial markets [while] combating the euro crisis and defining the role of the EU in the G20 post-Toronto."

Yet "even if a new government comes to power [in Belgium] during the Belgian presidency [of the EU]," he estimates that the main programmatic direction of the latter "is expected to remain unchanged … [because] in Belgium approving an EU presidency program is almost like approving a national policy program."

That is because such approval on the Belgian national level is the product of "a lengthy negotiation process between the [Belgian] federal state, the country's constituent regions and political parties at the different levels of government."

Von Lingen sums up by concluding that it is "certainly to the advantage of the EU" that "the first permanent President of the European Council is a former Belgian Prime Minister."

Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
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URL:  http://www.robertcutler.org/blog/2010/08/belgium_guides_new_eu_course.html
First published by ISN Security Watch, 10 August 2010.

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