Belgium: Another Wasted EU Presidency?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Internal political troubles must not be allowed to blemish Belgium's upcoming handling of the EU presidency and lessons can be learnt from the Spanish one in this regard, argues Oladiran Bello, an expert at Madrid-based think-tank FRIDE, in an exclusive contribution for EURACTIV.

The following commentary was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Oladiran Bello of Madrid-based think-tank FRIDE. 

"Belgium will formally take over the EU rotational presidency from Spain at the beginning of July. Despite the national self-introspection unleashed by the Flemish separatists' victory in Belgian elections this month, well-founded concerns that the country's imminent EU presidency risks distracting from internal events are being too readily dismissed by many Belgian commentators. Among them are respected figures including former Belgian Prime Minister (now MEP) Guy Verhofstadt.

Yet, two cautionary tales stand out from Spain's own outgoing presidency, which a perceptive Belgian leadership 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. Instead, a series of ill-considered plans – including the controversial invitation to Honduras’ ostracised government to attend the EU-Latin America conference – highlighted the government's single-mindedness and preoccupation with glory away from key players like Latin American heavyweights opposed to any Honduran presence.

Coming on the heels of President Barack Obama's earlier snub to a US-EU summit planned for Spain's capital earlier in the year, the series of events soon added-up to a sense of Spanish drift behind the thinning façade of Madrid's role as chief EU interlocutor with Latin America. Meanwhile, real achievements were few and far-between, including failure to nudge the Latin Americans to conclude new inter-bloc trading agreements that could partly shore up Europe's deflating share of global trade.

Given the counter-productivity of Spain's knee-jerk opportunism amidst economic troubles at home, the incoming presidency with its own domestic political deadlock (and indeed lack of a mandated central government) must explore innovative means to pursue a more deliberative approach at home and at EU level.

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. 

In the DR Congo (DRC)/Great Lakes of Africa region for example, Belgium's historic ties there are particularly suited to providing European leadership and input at a time when the DRC's post-transition arrangement faces its sternest test to date. EU diplomacy, coupled with innovative ideas pushed by European diplomats, have been crucial to the relative stabilisation of a country which concluded perhaps the most complex post-conflict transition in recent history in 2006.

With EU disbursements in support of the electoral process alone running to nearly 750 million euros – not to mention development assistance of a similar magnitude – a successful longer term outcome in the DRC remains one of the key measures of success in EU external actions of recent years.

Yet, UN peacekeepers currently facing down peace spoilers in restive, remote regions of the country have been asked by Congolese President Kabila (many say rather irresponsibly) to speedily wind down their stabilisation mission there.

That, indeed, is one area where Belgium, unlike the preceding presidency, can create much needed leeway for EU crisis and peace-building interventions with measurable impacts. Even so, Belgian mavericks such as former Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who claimed King Leopold was a visionary hero misunderstood for 'irregularities' leading to 15 million deaths in colonial Congo, will need to be reined in if such statements are not to derail the EU's re-engagement.

Will internal divisions, replicated at the heart of government, sap vitality from a potentially energetic Belgian leadership of EU recalibration in the DRC and the wider Great Lakes region? What is already clear is that the impending presidency will not be a traditional one in many respects, portending both opportunities and potentially serious drawbacks at a time when threats to both EU internal prosperity and dwindling external clout underline the urgent need for strong, coherent leadership across the board.

On the one hand, the proclamation by Belgium's secretary for European affairs, Olivier Chastel, of his country's intent to put Belgian diplomacy "at [Baroness Catherine Ashton's] disposal […] to do everything she considers the rotating presidency should do […] and not the opposite" could be taken as a positive statement of intent to coordinate the presidencies. On the other hand, it could also be read as making virtue out of necessity, suggesting an unusual willingness to surrender presidential prerogatives to EU bureaucracy in order to deflect attention away from internal Belgian complications.

Led by a caretaker government since the resignation in April of Prime Minister Yves Leterme, the country by most projections will be unable to form a ruling coalition until at least September 2010. Optimistic assessments of Belgium's EU presidency have sometimes been based on vacuous and entirely warrantless claims.

These range from the supposed automatic ability of its 'extremely good officialdom' to see the presidency through (regardless of the locked-in inability to forge critically needed national consensus), to expectations that the incumbent of the recently created office of EU Council president, Belgian Herman van Rompuy, will smooth over relations between the caretaker government and the EU bureaucracy.

The damage to Spain's rotational presidency as it tussled for the lead role with post-Lisbon offices including that of Mr Van Rompuy in early 2010 stands as a testimony to the continuing teething problems in the European institutional set-up.

These grey areas remain largely unclarified as the dual presidencies established by the Treaty seek an uneasy accommodation. Even then, Belgium has arguably the most complicated arrangement internally when it comes to division of responsibilities for EU affairs. A large chunk of the presidency agenda will fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of regional governments, which wield significant powers under Belgium's federalist constitution. Although not run by caretaker administrations like the federal level, real problems may surface with regard to effective coordination of multi-level inputs and shared responsibilities between regions and the partially enabled federal government.

Yet, Belgian abdication of responsibility and failure to deliver the robust national inputs expected of the rotating presidency is something the EU can certainly do without at this critical moment. In the end, it is the cumulative successes or otherwise of Spain, Belgium and others at the till of the rotational presidency which will shape Europe's long-term ability to respond to emerging questions on the EU's future shape, orientation and global role. A carry-over to the European arena of Belgium's internal muddles will only complicate this process."

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