Divided Belgium prepares to take on EU presidency

Bart de Wever Picnik.jpg

Belgium will take on the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union with a caretaker government in charge, following national elections which saw Flemish separatist leader Bart De Wever top the polls.

Coalition talks in Belgium kicked-off in earnest last Thursday (17 June), when King Albert II nominated Bart De Wever as an "informer" to explore options for a new government.

A new executive is not expected before September, but Elio Di Rupo, the Socialist Party (PS) leader who won the election in the French-speaking south of the country, is showing surprising signs of goodwill, saying he wants talks to conclude "as quickly as possible".

Di Rupo, who is widely seen as most likely to become Belgium's next prime minister because the socialists – together with their Flemish counterparts – hold the largest number of seats in the new parliament, said De Wever's nomination was "a positive signal" in view of forming a government.

De Wever himself said he was ready to leave the prime minister's seat to Di Rupo, putting the pressure on francophone parties to assume full responsibility in upcoming state reform talks that Dutch-speaking parties have been demanding for years.

De Wever and Di Rupo have agreed to maintain discretion at all times during the talks, which will have to include detailed plans to delegate more powers to the regions, including the sensitive issue of redefining the electoral boundaries around Belgian capital Brussels.

The protection of French-speaking minorities must be "an absolute principle" in negotiations over splitting the Brussels-Hal-Vilvoorde electoral district around Brussels, hardline francophone parties warned.

EU presidency

Meanwhile, the transition at the top of the Belgian state should not be a cause for concern for the EU, said Yves Leterme, the country's prime minister, who has been acting in a caretaker capacity since his resignation in April.

Speaking at the European Commission's headquarters in May, Leterme promised that Belgium "will live up to expectations" and gave assurances that the EU presidency would be unaffected by the country's political transition (EURACTIV 27/05/10).

Belgium's task is also expected to be made easier by Herman Van Rompuy, a Flemish Christian Democrat who quit his prime ministerial role to become permanent chair of the European Council, which brings together EU heads of state and government.

"This can only facilitate our work," said Olivier Chastel, Belgian secretary of state for European affairs, in a recent interview with EURACTIV. "It can facilitate a perfect interaction in the agendas [and] the manner in which the Council formations work with the European Council [of heads of state]".

"Undeniably, all this can actually work, especially because in Belgium, we have a very pragmatic approach to the requirements of the Lisbon Treaty," which gives a more prominent role to the EU's new president.

"But it remains to be seen to what extent," Chastel added, saying the Belgian EU Presidency programme should not be confused with Van Rompuy's role as "a representative of the 27 heads of state".

Speaking after a summit of EU leaders last week, Van Rompuy said it would not be a problem if Belgium did not have a new government in place by the start of the presidency on 1 July.

"The summer months are calm. If we have a government by September, it can still take up the reins and continue for the rest of presidency," Van Rompuy said, noting that Belgium is a federal state in which regional governments will also play a role.

Along the same lines, State Secretary Chastel remarked that parts of the Belgian EU Presidency programme would be unaffected by the political transition at federal level, because they fall under the competencies of regional governments.

The regions "have important competencies, sometimes exclusive," Chastel told EURACTIV in a recent interview. "Some community and regional ministers chair some formations of the [EU Council of Ministers] and they are not in a caretaker capacity," he remarked. "Only the federal level is."

Consultations on the programme

Belgium's final EU presidency programme was formally adopted by Yves Leterme's cabinet and Belgium's constituent regions at a meeting on 16 June, and will be officially unveiled later this month.

A period of "intense consultation" with the EU institutions will follow, including meetings with the European Parliament's political groups on 21-24 June.

Antoine Ripoll, spokesperson for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament, said he expected the Belgian Presidency to work smoothly.

"If we have an a priori, it is rather positive," said Ripoll, adding that the EPP is "not at all preoccupied by the fact that there is a transition government".

"The fact that Mr. Van Rompuy is Belgian is going to facilitate things," he added.

Ripoll also remarked that with the Lisbon Treaty now in force, the role of the rotating presidency had "become less important than before," meaning expectations would be higher on Van Rompuy. "We are expecting more coordination from the European Council and that Mr. Van Rompuy will assume his competencies as president more and more."

He also said working relations with the Belgian Presidency should be made easier by Prime Minister Yves Leterme's Christian Democrat affiliation, which is at the heart of the EPP.

"It is true that it is always easier for us to have a presidency which is from our political family, which allows us to say things more directly and more easily."

Given that the current Belgian government is a coalition of five different parties, other political families should also be able to find relatives in the upcoming presidency.

But Ripoll warned that the presidency must understand that accepting the new treaty also means accepting the new powers of the European Parliament.

"Generally speaking, we are expecting the Council to understand that the European Parliament is now co-legislator – we have seen it with the European External Action Service, SWIFT, etc."

"The Council always wants Parliament to hurry up and say 'yes' right away. This is not the case anymore and the Council needs to understand that. There has to be more Community method than intergovernmental method."

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a nationalist party, secured a sweeping victory in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium in national elections held on 13 June, paving the way for more powers to be delegated to the regions in the country that hosts the EU institutions.

Flemish nationalist gains were matched by a large victory for the socialists in French-speaking Wallonia, with both parties now expected to spearhead government coalition talks.

The elections were triggered after Flemish liberal party Open-VLD decided to leave the government over a dispute between French- and Dutch-speaking parties regarding electoral boundaries surrounding the capital, Brussels (EURACTIV 27/04/10).

Belgian King Albert II told Prime Minister Yves Leterme to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government was formed.

  • 21-23 June: Belgian Presidency meets European Parliament political group leaders at Palais d'Egmont.
  • 24 June: Meeting with European Parliament conference of presidents.
  • 2 July: Official inauguration of Belgian EU Presidency.
  • 7 July: Official presentation of presidency programme at European Parliament.

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