Despite internal divisions, Belgium ‘thinks big’ about EU

Ceci n'est pas une pipe.jpg

Belgium takes on the EU's rotating presidency on Thursday (1 July) with no less than its national unity at stake, as ongoing government coalition talks seek to secure make-or-break internal reform. But unsolved internal problems are by no means preventing Belgian politicians from "thinking big" about the European Union, EURACTIV has learned.

Some in Belgium may fear for the country's unity, but Europe need not worry about Belgium steering the EU for the next six months.

This is the message that has consistently been delivered to the Brussels-based media in recent days by Belgian politicians at the highest level.

Although the official target date for forming a government is September, speaking off the record, Belgian officials admit that the country may well continue with the present caretaker cabinet throughout the EU presidency.

"Everything is possible," a minister in Yves Leterme's government told EURACTIV, admitting that the timing for setting up a new cabinet may offer surprises either way.

"Belgium is the country of René Magritte," a top official added, referring to the Belgian surrealist painter known for portraying a pipe carrying the message 'This is not a pipe'.

In a humourous gesture, the famous painting even appears on the personal web page of Didier Reynders, finance minister and president of the French-speaking liberal party MR (Mouvement Réformateur).

Belgian officials said no information had filtered down from ongoing government consultation talks led by Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever. But they assumed that a government could be formed only once a basic agreement had been reached over internal state reforms that have caused Leterme to step down three times in the last three years.

Belgian politicians have failed to agree on redefining electoral boundaries around the capital, Brussels, and on the future financing of social and healthcare systems in French-speaking Wallonia, which richer Flanders refuses to continue sponsoring.

Insiders on the Belgian political scene said both problems could be solved.

"The financing formulas [of social and health care] are so complicated that nobody can understand them. This is done on purpose and it's better this way," a minister in the federal government said. He explained that this would help save face on both sides.

However, splitting the bilingual electoral district of Brussels-Hal-Vilvoorde (BHV) is seen in terms of a zero-sum game, which does not make things any easier, he said.

Another Laeken-type major initiative?

But internal problems will not be a handicap to Belgium's handling of EU affairs, several high officials insisted. With a Belgian EU president in the shape of Herman Van Rompuy, the presidency is hoping to work on the basis of institutional "team work" that will also involve the European Parliament, a minister said.

The Belgian Presidency will aim to build on the work of the Van Rompuy Task Force of finance ministers, which is aiming to define an economic government for the Union, in order to launch a bigger initiative.

"I don't insist on the precise terms, but we aim to launch another convention," a minister said. The Convention was launched at the December 2001 Laeken summit, under the previous Belgian Presidency, and led to the draft European 'Constitution', which was later watered down to become the Lisbon Treaty.

Asked if he was indeed talking about another 'Laeken-type' major initiative to design a new EU treaty, the minister said: "You could call it that." He also indicated preferences for building the Union's budget on the basis of the EU's "own resources," jargon for the introduction of a European tax.

At this stage, it appears unlikely that the idea would gather consensus in EU circles. It is also far from certain that this minister will remain in the next Belgian government.

Belgian ministers indicated that they were not in favour of austerity measures of the type recently introduced by the German government (EURACTIV 08/06/10), as they could result in deflation.

"While we are trying to cure the decease, we should prevent the country from dying in good health," a minister said.

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.

  • July-Dec. 2010: Belgian EU Presidency.

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