The EU, Belgium and the 2010 Presidency: Back to Basics

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

The Belgian EU Presidency has been a success and is an example for the incoming Hungarians, while the Lisbon Treaty has brought the rotating presidency back to basics, write Steven Van Hecke and Peter Bursens from the Research Group on European and International Politics at the University of Antwerp in an exclusive commentary for EURACTIV.

This commentary was sent to EURACTIV by Steven Van Hecke and Peter Bursens.

''Belgium held the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers in the second half of 2010. Close to the end of its term, national and EU media have labelled it 'successful', confirming the excellent reputation Belgium has in the premises around the Schuman [Roundabout] and assessing that the Belgians have been living up to the relatively high expectations.

But why in the first place has Belgium such a good reputation and why do many people expect so much? And why did the Belgians succeed? Is it, after all, still possible to run a successful presidency under the Lisbon Treaty? And if so, what could the Hungarians, who will start their term on 1 January 2011, learn from the Belgian example?

What is so special about Belgium?

An assessment of the Belgian Presidency should keep a few important Belgian peculiarities in mind.

Firstly, unlike any other EU member state – even the ones that are federally organised such as Austria and Germany – Belgian ministers and officials from the sub-national level – regions and communities as they are called – chair a number of Council configurations.

The Environment Council, for instance, was chaired by the Flemish minister for the environment, Joke Schauvlieghe. Therefore it was not a national/federal but a regional minister that represented EU member states at the UN Climate Conference in Cancún. No other member state grants its sub-national entities direct access to EU decision-making in such a way.

Given the fact that Belgium had a caretaker government at the federal level throughout the whole presidency term, the ministers from the regions and the communities added stability to the Council Presidency. At the same, one must also say, however, that this system of representation is highly costly in terms of coordination, regular tensions between federal and regional ministers included.

Secondly, 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.

One important implication of this consensus is that European issues have a very low saliency. Parties do not electorally compete over European issues. Even the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie; N-VA), the party that won the last federal elections and favours an independent Flanders, is in this sense a classical Belgian party since it supports European integration, similar to the mainstream political parties.

One should add that this has not always been the case. It is a historical myth that Belgium has always been in favour of 'more Europe'. In the early 1950s, for instance, the period of the Rome Treaties, the Belgian foreign minister refused the offer of the other member states to have the seat of the European institutions in Brussels. And today, Belgium is not a good example when it comes to the transposition of EU legislation in national and regional laws. It is regularly subject to the Commission's infringement procedures.

Thirdly, Belgium is said to have a number of additional assets that not all member states enjoy.

(1) Schuman [Roundabout] is quite nearby, of course, at least in physical terms. Belgian politicians do not have to travel to attend or chair Council meetings. The same applies to civil servants and diplomats. They are living in the middle of the European action.

(2) Belgians are known for their language skills, which fosters understanding and goodwill from many European partners.

(3) Belgium is an experienced chair: 2010 marked the 12th Belgian Presidency.

Of course, no-one from the 1950s and 1960s is still around and the EU has changed considerably since Belgium's last presidency, but a relatively high number of officials and diplomats that were already there in 2001 still occupy important positions. Of course, this applies much less to the ministers since turnover is quite high.

One notable exception is Finance Minister Didier Reynders. After Jean-Claude Juncker he is the oldest serving member of the ECOFIN Council, [which has] undoubtedly [become] one of the most important Council configurations.

4) Belgium started to prepare itself long in advance, even though it was not sure which treaty would be in force. The preparation was also very thorough, involving all sectors and levels of the Belgian political system.

(5) Belgium also has the advantage that other member states are usually not suspicious towards Belgian proposals or actions. As a small and pro-European member state, it has no 'hidden agenda' and its national interest comes very close to the common European interest.

(6) Belgian politicians are known for their specific political culture. They have experience in dealing with different and often opposing preferences, they are used to dealing with different languages and they are trained in finding a consensus. It is clear, however, that this kind of asset has lost some of its credibility as long as there is no new federal government.

The fourth and last characteristic that makes the Belgian case specific is precisely the fact that Belgium had no fully powered government. It is the first time that the Council of Ministers has been chaired by a caretaker government during the whole semester.

The lack of a stable executive that is able to act might be a concern for the financial markets, [but] it is much less of a concern as far as the rotating presidency is concerned, simply because of the reasons that have been mentioned: the involvement of ministers from the regional level, the long and sound preparation [and] the experienced civil servants and diplomats.

A journalist of the Financial Times even added that with a caretaker government, ministers are not distracted by domestic issues. They have all the time they need to chair the Council of Ministers.

Lisbon makes things weaker and stronger at the same time

It is therefore no big surprise that Belgium has a good reputation and the expectations for its presidency have been relatively high. But is Belgium able to live up to these expectations, especially if one knows that the Treaty of Lisbon changed the rotating presidency dramatically? Before taking a closer look at how Belgium deals with this particular challenge, let us summarise the relevant changes the Treaty of Lisbon induced.

One must, firstly, refer to the establishment of a permanent president of the European Council who replaces the prime minister as chair and who happens to be a Belgian. The foreign affairs minister of the rotating presidency also lost half of his job, as the Foreign Affairs Council is now chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The foreign affairs minister of the rotating presidency now only chairs the General Affairs Council.

These changes are most obvious, they have become well-known, and they have a direct effect on the rotating presidency. Among other things, the presidency lost its visibility [and] its grandeur, as the Union is now represented externally by Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton.

Secondly, one must also look at the indirect changes. If, for instance, the European Parliament indeed becomes much stronger as it has been granted more competences and a bigger say in the EU budget by the Treaty of Lisbon: this inevitably affects the way the Council operates. At the end of the day, it is with the European Parliament that the Council has to find an agreement on legislative and budgetary matters.

Thirdly, the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty are often vague and limited. As the legal basis is small, much room for interpretation is left for those who implement the Treaty.

Fourthly, one must not forget the rationale behind a lot of the changes. The Lisbon Treaty does not only intend to make the EU more democratic, transparent and effective: it also aims to enhance the continuity of the system in terms of agendas, policies and leadership.

Of course, not everything that is in the Lisbon Treaty is new. A lot is simply the formalisation of what existed before. Take for instance the Trio Presidency, the rule that three consecutive rotating presidencies have to work together in order to present a common 18-month programme. The first time this rule was applied was in 2007. The Lisbon Treaty has simply confirmed this.

This is not to say, however, that the Trio should be overestimated. On the contrary, the Trio does not really seem to matter, except in the preparation phase of a rotating Presidency. On top of that, a number of exceptions still make the rotating presidency more relevant than one might think at first sight: for instance, although the minister of foreign affairs is no longer chairing the Foreign Affairs Council, the rotating presidency is still in place at COREPER level.

It is also important to note that the Belgian Presidency found itself in a system that was still in the making: every actor still had to find its place in a system that creates a number of opportunities for those who want to take advantage of the new situation.

What did the Belgians do then?

Belgium has understood the Lisbon Treaty correctly. If one wants to be influential in the new system, the rules of that new system should be applied. Consequently, Belgium decided not to come up with a long list of priorities, as was traditionally the case.

Agenda-setting is to be done by the European Commission and increasingly by the president of the European Council. Belgium simply allied its ambitions with all kinds of issues and legislation that were already on the table, the so-called pipeline. Instead of presenting a Belgian agenda for the EU, an EU agenda for Belgium became the guideline.

Furthermore, Belgium favours a speedy and effective transition towards the post-Lisbon EU system. Instead of using the presidency to put oneself in the picture, Belgium chose to make the system work as smoothly as possible, acting in the 'spirit' of the Lisbon Treaty. Making the EU more handlungsfähig (having the ability to act), for instance in foreign affairs, is something the Belgians supported by helping to establish the European External Action Service (EEAS), the new EU foreign ministry.

In order to let the new modus operandi work properly, Belgium also wanted to set the 'right' precedents. This line is taken as a matter of principle but also because of pragmatic reasons. Belgium and some other member states are not very confident in the way in which Hungary, Poland, Denmark and others will run the next post-Lisbon presidencies.

Fearing a kind of Eurosceptic wave taking over the Council of Ministers, the Belgians tried to shape the system in such a way that a Eurosceptic line of action will become much harder to implement. To give just a few examples of the Belgian practice: Belgium invested substantially in a good working relationship with the European Commission and with the European Parliament, making clear that according to them, the so-called méthode communautaire should be the dominant way of doing things at the EU level.

Next, Belgium presented itself as a service provider for Van Rompuy and Ashton. At first sight this is a bit surprising as Belgium has traditionally opposed the intergovernmental organisation of the EU. At the time of the European Convention, for instance, Belgium was very much against the introduction of a permanent president of the European Council. Of course, things became easier when a Belgian got the position. The support for Ashton is not surprising either, as Belgium has always supported the Europeanisation of foreign affairs.

More generally speaking, the way the Belgians chaired the different Council configurations has been very much result-oriented. 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 most important tools to achieve these agreements have been the so-called trialogues, the informal negotiations between the Council of Ministers, represented by the rotating president, the European Commission and the European Parliament. It is here that (package) deals were made, that legislation has de facto been decided.

So far, this Belgian way of running the Council Presidency has been quite effective. In all kinds of dossiers breakthroughs were realised. Examples include legislation regarding the financial sector, the establishment of the EEAS and the enlargement process with Serbia.

Some dossiers are still waiting for a final outcome, however, such as the revision of the parental leave directive, the introduction of a European patent and the 2011 budget.

It is also clear that the Belgian Presidency did not sit on the first row when there was no particular role to play as chair of the Council of Ministers. This was, for instance, the case with the Roma, the euro crisis and all the bilateral and multilateral summits, such as the G20 in Seoul.

What can the Hungarians (and the Poles) learn from the Belgian experience?

If the Belgians were to advice the Hungarians who will chair the Council of Ministers in the first half of 2011 (and the Poles in the second half), what would they tell them?

First, it might be interesting to take a close look at the advantages and disadvantages Belgium has at its disposal. Some might apply to Hungary; others don't. Hungary is not a member of the euro zone and this might affect its presidency in a negative way. How convincing will the Hungarian minister of finance chairing the ECOFIN Council be if the euro still dominates the agenda?

But Hungary (like Poland) also has some advantages Belgium hasn't. It has a single party government with a large majority in the parliament. In theory, this should lead to a rather peaceful domestic environment when ministers take up their job in Brussels.

Secondly, one must not expect much in terms of agenda-setting power and external representation. Irrespective of the question whether member states could make a difference in the 'old' system, the 'new' system is very clear: one should not see the rotating presidency intervening here.

Thirdly, one does expect the rotating presidency to act as a chair and to do everything it can to do it properly. This will require first of all time investment. With the 'new' system becoming more complex and legislation now predominantly being made in the triangle between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament, co-ordination between these institutions will become more important than it already was.

Especially for the prime minister of the member state holding the rotating presidency, there is a lot of potential here as it is he or she who can establish regular, informal contacts with the presidents of the Commission and the Parliament.

Fourthly, as far as visibility is concerned, the picture is mixed. The rotating presidency might still be a unique opportunity to explain the EU to the domestic audience, especially if the member state is new and chairing the Council of Ministers for the first time.

But one should not overestimate the possible effect. So far there is no empirical evidence that supports the thesis that a rotating presidency leads to a better knowledge of the EU, let alone to bridging the gap between Brussels and the member state involved.

As far as external visibility is concerned, the situation is even more dramatic. Holding the rotating presidency or not, people will continue to associate Hungary with the puszta and goulash or, if one has followed the news recently, Jobbik and Kolontar.

The rotating presidency is not the right tool to change the country's image in Europe. It is not designed for that and especially with the Lisbon Treaty it will not work that way.

Contrary to that, having good PR in Brussels is crucial for the member state's reputation. A new member state holding the rotating presidency is like passing a second EU exam. Brussels people will have a close look at the performance and comment accordingly. If one wants to increase one's credibility in the EU, the rotating presidency is there to help. But performance – whether internally, externally or in Brussels – does not depend any longer on the ways in which unforeseen events have been handled.

The framework of the rotating presidency is now much more stable. It means less drama, indeed, but generates a rather fair return on investment if you take the preparation seriously and organise yourself properly. This is of course everything but to reshuffle the government portfolios and the administrative system only a few months prior to the start of the rotating presidency.

And finally, performance (or the perception of performance; reputation) also depends on actors' behaviour, especially the expectations, whether justified or not. If they are low, and in the case of Hungary they are low, one can always say that low expectations have at least one advantage: it will be very difficult not to surprise people in a positive way.

Towards collective leadership in the EU

The Lisbon Treaty decapitated the rotating presidency but it also brought it back to the basics: chairing the Council of Ministers. For sure, Belgium has done everything it can to facilitate that process. At the same time, it has not prevented Belgium from taking advantage of the specific internal and external environment that surrounds the rotating presidency. Moreover, there is no reason why every member state cannot do the same.

Especially within a system of dispersed power, multiple actors and polycentric opportunity structures, Hungary and every other member state should be able to find its role, to take responsibility and to make a difference.

The post-Lisbon rotating presidency is only one of these structures, indeed, but it is still an important one. It has lost much of its envergure but as always in politics, that is not to say that it has necessarily lost its overall relevance.''

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