The goals identified by Belgium largely echoed the priorities unveiled by the Spanish EU Presidency for the first half of 2010 (EURACTIV 09/12/09). They also closely matched the joint 18-month programme, which Belgium presented along with Spain and Hungary in the new "trio" presidency format (EURACTIV 26/01/10).
Belgium's final EU presidency programme was formally adopted by the prime minister's cabinet and Belgium's constituent regions at a meeting on 16 June (see summary):
Socio-economic issues: Re-establish growth by tackling the ongoing economic crisis, with a package of measures to increase the surveillance of financial markets; promote green jobs, innovation and the transition to a 'green knowledge economy'.
Social issues: Promote social cohesion by fighting poverty, which Prime Minister Yves Leterme said was "very important in [their] eyes"; Progressing on services of general interest; Stressing the EU's value-added in terms of health and ageing, including pension reform.
Environment and climate change: Switching to a green economy; Preparing the December UN climate conference in Cancún; Adjusting taxation to fit other EU objectives on employment, energy, transport and emissions reduction.
Justice and home affairs: Implementing the so-called Stockholm Programme launched in 2009 under the Swedish Presidency; Establish mutual recognition of court rulings.
External relations: Continuing with the EU's enlargement policy and putting in place the EU's new diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS).
The programme was expected to remain unchanged even if a new government came to power during the presidency, because it was the result of a lengthy negotiation process between the federal state, the country's constituent regions and political parties at the different levels of government.
"In Belgium, approving an EU presidency programme is almost like approving a national policy programme," said Olivier Chastel, state secretary for European affairs, in an interview with EURACTIV.
Economic governance and the euro
The stability of the euro area was expected to dominate headlines at a summit of EU leaders on 28-29 October, when European Council President Herman Van Rompuy was due to submit the final report of his task force on economic governance.
The June 2010 EU summit had already cleared a few hurdles, with EU leaders agreeing to greater surveillance and coordination of national budgets following the Greek debt crisis.
From 2011, member states have to present budgetary data to Brussels in the first half of the year so that the European Commission and other EU member states can assess the economic assumptions underlying the plan.
In addition to stepping up the level of peer review, EU leaders had agreed to develop a scoreboard "to better assess competitiveness developments and imbalances" and allow for early detection of unsustainable or dangerous trends.
Sanctions for countries which repeatedly break the EU's deficit and debt limits also stirred much debate. Countries with excessive deficit and debt levels are likely to face financial penalties under the revised Stability and Growth Pact.
Until recently the EU focused on deficits and neglected the debt situation, but this is meant to have been corrected under the revised Pact. The Van Rompuy Task Force looked at whether withholding EU regional funds might be an option for punishing errant governments, while an earlier Franco-German proposal to suspend countries' voting rights met with a cold response from other member states.
Moreover, such far-reaching sanctions would have required changes to the EU treaty, something that few member states apart from Germany seemed to have an appetite for.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron insisted on securing an opt-out on closer economic integration, arguing that the stability of the euro area was in Britain's interest but that London's economic sovereignty should remain unaffected by changes agreed at EU level.
Innovation policy was expected to be one of the highlights of the Belgian Presidency, which planned to devote the autumn European summit to the issue.
EU leaders were due to debate a new 'Research and Innovation Plan' when they met in Brussels on 28-29 October, with the focus likely to be on intellectual property, research funding, public procurement and innovation infrastructure.
R&D was expected to come into sharp focus as member states were due to sign off on individual national targets for research spending. The European Commission wanted governments to spend an average of 3% of GDP on R&D, but advanced member states would face higher targets than those with traditionally lower levels of investment.
Diplomatic sources said governments had insisted that there would be no "burden sharing" element to hitting the Commission's proposed Community-wide target of 3% - meaning the average number of national targets could ultimately come in below the 3% mark.
The final version of the plan was due to be approved at a subsequent summit in December, leaving ample time for national industry and research ministers to flesh out the Commission's proposal in detail.
On style, Olivier Chastel, state secretary for European affairs, said Belgium would mark a "rupture" from previous practice following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009, which created two new high-profile positions – an EU foreign policy chief and a permanent president of the European Council, which brings together heads of state and government.
He said this meant the Belgian Presidency would take a back seat role to EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and EU President Herman Van Rompuy.
"Both will have full responsibility for their entire field of competence," he said, adding that the Belgian Presidency would not step aside but would implement "the Lisbon Treaty, all the Lisbon Treaty and nothing but the Lisbon Treaty".
In other words, "those who have a tradition for putting themselves forward: the head of state, in our case the prime minister and the foreign affairs minister," would be less visible, he said.
Transition at the top
Meanwhile, coalition talks in Belgium kicked off on 17 June, when King Albert II nominated Bart De Wever as an "informer" to explore options for a new government.
"Our aim is to have a government in place before October, when the really important work of the presidency will begin," De Wever said after meeting European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on 23 June (EURACTIV 24/06/10).
Elio Di Rupo, the Socialist Party (PS) leader who won the election in the French-speaking south of the country, was widely seen as most likely to become Belgium's next prime minister because the socialists – together with their Flemish counterparts – held the largest number of seats in the new parliament.
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 agreed to maintain discretion at all times during the talks, which had to include detailed plans to delegate more powers to the regions, including the sensitive issue of redefining the electoral boundaries around Belgian capital Brussels.
Other sensitive dossiers included the transfer of more socio-economic powers to the regions, which most Flemish parties have been asking for. But it was expected that this could prove hard to swallow for poorer Wallonia, where unemployment levels are double those in the richer north.
A review of the Belgian EU Presidency
Despite the difficult internal situation and the complications of the Lisbon reforms, the Belgian EU Presidency was widely considered to have been a success.
The only perceived failure was the continued standstill on negotiations over Turkey's potential accession to the European Union.
The following are the major accomplishments of the Belgian EU Presidency:
Belgium's internal developments and back-seat role
Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo's efforts to form a new government collapsed in early September. Bart de Wever, the Flemish separatist leader, failed on 18 October to bring views closer to reforming the Belgian state.
De Wever said he felt "humiliated" by the French-speaking parties' decision to reject a 50-page compromise proposal presented on 17 October. In the French-speaking part of the country, the Socialist Party accused De Wever of deliberately steering Belgium into a dead-end to provoke elections in a climate of tension between the communities. Di Rupo stressed that his party was strongly against holding new elections.
French-speaking leaders did not rule out a scenario in which Belgium would disintegrate, but instead insisted that splitting the country also should be negotiated.
Surreally, the dramatic Belgian events had little impact on the Belgian EU Presidency. The collapse of the talks in fact coincided with a high-profile EU-Asia summit, which gathered the leaders of 48 nations and was hosted by the King and caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme.
Moreover, the Lisbon Treaty meant the Belgians played more of a facilitating role via "trialogue" negotiations between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers to get legislation through.
In this exercise, they proved to be particularly skilful.
Thanks to Belgium's federal structure, representatives of the three regional governments (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) were able to take on greater responsibilities to complement the role of Yves Leterme's caretaker government.
They organised numerous conferences with the aim of involving a wide range of decision- makers and stakeholders in a wide range of debates.
Financial supervision and economic governance
In September the EU eventually agreed on a range of measures for better supervision and regulation of the banking sector. Four new financial watchdogs (European Supervisory Authorities or ESAs) began working on the supervision of EU financial markets on 4 January.
At a December summit of EU leaders, a compromise was reached on the issue of ‘limited treaty change', allowing for a permanent rescue mechanism to be put in place in order to calm the financial markets and "safeguard the stability of the euro area as a whole".
The Stability and Growth Pact is being revised to include sanction mechanisms for countries that breach the debt or deficit limits. The package is currently being discussed in the European Parliament.
In addition, year-long talks on regulating hedge funds and private equity firms were concluded in October. EU decision-makers approved a directive on alternative investment fund managers – including hedge funds – and new regulations on credit rating agencies.
After a six-week public tussle between the European Parliament and member states, the EU reached an agreement in December for a 2.9% increase to the 2011 budget to pay for the Union's growing responsibilities.
MEPs had initially requested a 6.2% increase, but backed down under harsh criticism from governments that were hacking away at their own national budgets to slim deficits and attract investors.
Another Belgian achievement in terms of innovation policy was a giant step toward an EU-wide patent to protect the design of products sold across borders. Negotiations for a single patent had been bogged down for more than a decade over language and legal disputes.
European companies spend 10 times more on patents than their American and Japanese rivals. A single patent is a critical element of several EU strategies, including the single market, industrial policy and the ‘Innovation Union'.
Several rotating presidents had promised to resolve the issue, only to fail. But under Belgium, the vision of an EU patent came into sharper focus: while Economy Minister Vincent van Quickenborne was unable to forge a unanimous agreement, he did get 23 member states to agree to work together under a rarely-used tactic known as ‘enhanced cooperation'.
The move increases pressure on Italy and Spain, the EU patent's most vocal opponents, as well as two other hesitant members. The Czech Republic called for an impact assessment of enhanced cooperation, while Cyprus said it still hoped for a unanimous decision.
Establishing the European External Action Service was a top priority of the Lisbon Treaty. The ambition was to give the European Union a single and louder voice on the world stage.
Building on the efforts of the Spanish Presidency, the Belgians were able to win approval for the new European diplomatic service. And in October, Belgium forged a compromise on staffing, finances and the 2010 budget. That cleared the way for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton to appoint her managerial team, which formally began operations on 1 December.
With regard to enlarging the EU, the Belgian Presidency set out to be an "honest broker".
In July, accession negotiations were officially opened with Iceland. With Croatia, negotiations began in five key areas and concluded in five others. And talks with Serbia entered a new phase because Belgium had to drop its previous opposition, which put pressure on the Netherlands to cave in.
The Belgians had hoped to start discussions with Turkey on competition issues, but there was no progress on Turkey's bid to join the EU and talks set for 22 December were cancelled.
Steven Vanackere, Belgium's foreign minister, told European Voice that Turkey's implementation of new competition rules was "a bit too slow".
In trade relations, the EU agreed in September to sign a tax-free pact with South Korea and to grant Pakistan trade concessions after destructive flooding.
EU officials say the agreement – the most ambitious ever concluded by the Union – will create about 19 billion euros of new exports for EU producers. Combined EU-South Korea trade in goods totalled about €53 billion in 2009, according to EU figures.
Despite opposition behind the scenes, plans to let Europeans seek medical treatment in other countries in the 27-country bloc surged forward in December when EU countries gave the dossier their stamp of approval.
The new rules would help retirees living abroad, people with rare diseases and those living near borders to get the best health care. Currently, only about 1%, or €10 billion, of public health budgets are spent on cross-border health care per year, although that figure could rise with standardised rules for authorisation and reimbursement.
The deal, reached at ambassador level (Coreper), paved the way for a vote in the European Parliament on 19 January and meant that the Cross-border Health Care Directive could be in force as early as 2013.
On the environment, the Belgians struck a compromise in October to let member states increase road tolls for trucks laden with goods or materials because they burn more fuel and increase pollution. Negotiations on the so-called Eurovignette Directive had been stalled for two years, but the changes drew plenty of fire.
The freight sector denounced the additional taxes, saying it would only increase prices for products shipped by truck, while the Greens criticised the deal for making too many concessions to businesses.
Among other environmental achievements were new rules on toxic chemicals in electric devices. A revised version of the Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive left little room for exemptions and listed a number of new substances for more scientific scrutiny.