The Belgian EU Presidency

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Belgium took on the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on 1 July 2010 with a caretaker government in charge, following national elections which saw Flemish separatist leader Bart De Wever top the polls.

Background

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 2010, 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, and both parties were subsequently 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.

Issues

Programme

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

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.

Back-seat role

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.

  • 2011 budget

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.

  • EU Patent

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.

  • External relations

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.

  • Environment and health

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.

Positions

In an address to the European Parliament on 7 July, French MEP Joseph Daul, chairman of the European People's Party (EPP), emphasised the importance of setting out ambitious yet realistic goals for the EU presidency. "All too often, we welcome a new rotating presidency in this hemicycle promising a complete make-over of Europe,'' he said.

''Six months later, however, we need to conclude that little of what was announced has been achieved. I expect the Belgian Presidency of the European Council to concentrate its efforts on our real priorities: growth and jobs, a sustainable economy, safety and freedom. Concrete results on all these fronts is what European citizens expect from us."

Daul stressed the importance of identifying economic growth and job generation as the most important issues facing the presidency. "If the Europe 2020 strategy is taken seriously and financed adequately by all member states, it can be a powerful tool for a more competitive and more sustainable Europe,'' he said. 

''At the same time, we need to make concrete progress on the regulation of the financial sector. Europe as we see it does not stand for speculation, but entrepreneurship and honest work," he added.

Steven Van Hecke and Peter Bursens of the University of Antwerp argued that the Belgian EU Presidency would be largely unaffected by the domestic political turmoil.

In an opinion piece published on EURACTIV, they argued that the Lisbon Treaty, adopted in December 2009, "has decapitated the rotating presidency" with the introduction of a permanent president, Herman Van Rompuy (who happens to be Belgian) and a foreign policy Chief, Cathy Ashton.

"Both Belgium's prime minister and foreign affairs minister will have less European work to do. Thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, they can afford to devote most of their time to domestic issues," argued Van Hecke and Bursens.

In addition, only a minority of EU meetings would be chaired by the Belgian federal level, with most of the work done by regional representatives whose governments continued to be in office. "Some even argue that the regions will take this opportunity to prove that they are up to the job of presiding over EU meetings, much more so than their colleagues at the federal level," they wrote.

In areas where the rotating presidency is still largely in charge – like the environment, agriculture and the single market – preparations were well handled and civil servants and diplomats "have been trained to chair meetings and forge compromises".

Finally, they argued that whichever parties eventually took part in the new federal government, "the Belgian European position will not change". "The pro-European consensus is still very stable and not only includes traditional parties but also the regionalist N-VA, the party that won the elections in Flanders."

Oladiran Bello, an expert at Madrid-based think-tank FRIDE, argued differently, saying there were "well-founded concerns that the country's imminent EU presidency risks distracting from internal events".

In an opinion piece published on EURACTIV, Bello said two cautionary tales stood out from Spain's own outgoing presidency, which the Belgians must heed as important learning experiences.

"First, pressures from a deteriorating economic situation and opportunistic jingoism on the part of Spain's opposition led its government increasingly to view the rotating EU presidency as a platform on which to overplay real and imagined 'success' stories of the Spanish Presidency. Neither the hoped-for distraction of the domestic audience nor the embellishment of elaborate diplomatic bluster fooled an already wary Spanish public."

"Second, for all the talk about the declining relevance of the rotating presidency post-Lisbon, adopting an approach based more on substance, and less rhetoric, can help Belgium demonstrate the enduring value-added of the rotational presidency."

With the benefit of hindsight, most assessments of the Belgian EU Presidency were generally positive. Please find a selection below:

Summing up its six months at the helm, Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Steven Vanackere, who is also deputy prime minister, said: "As the Union was faced with numerous critical challenges, Belgium opted for a pragmatic and targeted approach: the programme of the presidency aimed to achieve the greatest possible concrete results in various high-priority fields of action, in function of the legislative agenda of the Council and the European Parliament."

Steven Van Hecke and Peter Bursens, of the Research Group on European and International Politics at the University of Antwerp, concluded: "Belgium is probably one of the few member states in which there still exists a permissive consensus about European integration. The political elites, the media and the broad public opinion are still very much in favour of the EU, not to say of a federal Europe [...] They acted as honest broker, as negotiator or as mediator, not defending their own interests but in order to get as much agreements as possible before 31 December."

The European Environmental Bureau also published its own assessment of the Belgian Presidency. It was critical of Belgium's management of some environmental issues: "During the Belgian Presidency the deepening crisis of the euro - a very immediate issue to resolve - took up a lot of space in the media, which reduced the attention for more permanent crises, such as climate change and the unsustainable pressures on the global ecosystems."

However, the report praised the Belgian Presidency for its role in achieving progress at conferences in Nagoya and Cancún on biodiversity and climate change respectively.

"The Biodiversity Convention meeting in Nagoya led to a very important global agreement on tackling biodiversity depletion and in Cancún, the Parties to the Climate Convention made, after the failure of Copenhagen, some small but important steps forward to a global agreement to be reached next year. Many players have contributed to these results, but the fact that in both cases the EU member states and the Commission worked well to restore confidence in the EU as a global leader."

The report found that the "inability of the Belgian political parties to form a new government" was "more than compensated for by the arrangement of the three regional governments (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels), who would play a large role in the presidency".

Bruno Lété and Thomas Castrel from the German Marshall Fund of the United States acknowledged the Presidency's "modest but solid diplomacy".

"In total more than 50 deals were going to be sealed in just six months' time: besides a meager result on the EU 2020 strategy, a dysfunctional deal on the single EU patent dream and a poor review on last summer's Roma dispute, general consensus exists that this has been a positive presidency."

They added: "Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere held his word when he said that Belgium would show its loyalty to the new Treaty and the Lisbon institutions."

Receiving the baton from Vanackere, Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister Janos Martonyi said he would try to follow Belgium's example: "We are looking for contributions, coordination, cooperation, compromise, consensus and we want to work on the substance, not the form. Questions of self-esteem do not interest us."

Please click here to read our LinksDossier on the current Hungarian EU Presidency.

Timeline

  • 1 July 2010: Beginning of Belgian EU Presidency (see draft calendar).
  • 7 July 2010: Official presentation of presidency programme at European Parliament.
  • 28-29 Oct. 2010: EU summit, with innovation policy and economic governance on agenda.
  • 16-17 Dec. 2010: EU summit on permanent crisis mechanism and limited treaty change.
  • 31 Dec. 2010: End of Belgian EU Presidency.

Further Reading

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