Despite crises, Belgium’s EU Presidency made strides

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In terms of achievements, and despite internal political instability and a crisis in the euro zone, Belgium’s tenure as President of the European Union was a success.

When Belgium took the helm of the rotating Presidency on 1 July, Europe was embroiled in a financial crisis that threatened the future of its common currency and the economic recovery of the entire 27-nation bloc.

As its Presidency ends on 31 December, many of the euro countries are still under sovereign-siege, including recent debt downgrades or warnings for Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Belgium.

And yet, the Belgian Presidency oversaw significant achievements in financial supervision, strides toward a single patent, cross-border health care, and the acrimonious approval of the 2011 budget.

"Negotiations have been tricky, since many member states were reluctant of this proposal for a directive," said French Member of Parliament Françoise Grossetête, (European People’s Party) and rapporteur for cross-border health care. But after a compromise was reached in late December, she said, "during the Belgian Presidency, we found a balanced compromise."

Indeed, Belgian’s achievements were more noteworthy because they came under the framework of the new Lisbon Treaty, and at a time when Belgium’s own national political leadership was (and is) in disarray.

The Lisbon Treaty, which went into effect in December 2009, replaced some of the powers of the president's office with the creation of a permanent European Council President and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs, held by Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton, respectively.

That meant the Belgians played more of a facilitating role via "trialogue" negotiations between the Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers to get legislation through. And at this exercise, they proved to be particularly skilful.

The only failure that jumps out was the standstill on negotiations over Turkey’s potential inclusion in the union.

Here are the major accomplishments of the EU Belgium Presidency:

Financial supervision, 2011 budget

The EU eventually agreed in September on a range of measures for better supervision and regulation of the banking sector. The package, for example, included a European Systemic Risk Board to warn of potential future crises.

EU Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier called the deal "‘an historic moment for the evolution of financial regulation in Europe."

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.

Fund managers will be obliged to have minimum capital requirements and have to ensure that their assets are secure in depositary banks.

In exchange for fulfilling these and other requirements, funds will be able to market their business to investors across the bloc without having to comply with 27 different sets of national laws.

2011 Budget

After a six-week public tussle between the Parliament and member states, the EU reached an agreement in December for a 2.9% increase for next year’s budget to pay for the union’s growing responsibilities.

Members of Parliament 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 leery investors.

Towards an EU patent

Another achievement 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 most vocal opponents, as well as two 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 under the Lisbon Treaty. The ambition was to give the 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 a new European diplomatic service. And in October, Belgium forged a compromise on staffing, finances and the 2010 budget. That cleared the way for 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 were started in five key areas and concluded in five others. And talks with Serbia entered a new phase because Belgium had to drop its previous, national opposition, which put pressure on The Netherlands to cave.

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 horribly destructive flooding.

EU officials say the agreement – the most ambitious ever concluded by the union — will create about 19 billion euros ($25 billion) of new exports for EU producers. Combined EU-South Korea trade in goods totaled about €53 billion in 2009, according to EU figures. 

Environment & 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 their stamp of approval.

The new rules would especially 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 yearly, although that figure could rise with standardised rules for authorisation and reimbursement.

The deal, reached at ambassador level (Coreper), paves the way for a vote in Parliament on 19 January and increases the chances the cross-border healthcare 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.

Another environmental achievement were new rules on toxic chemicals in electric devices. Revisions on the directive on Restriction on Hazardous Substances left little room for exemptions and listed a number of new substances for more scientific scrutiny.

Summing up its six months at the helm, Steven Vanackere, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, 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, observed: "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."

Receiving the baton from Vanackere, Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs Janos Martonyi, said he will 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."

Belgium took on the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on 1 July with a caretaker government in charge, following national elections which saw Flemish separatist leader Bart De Wever top the polls (EURACTIV 21/06/10).

Its goals largely echoed the priorities of the Spanish EU Presidency in the first half of 2010. They also closely matched the joint 18-month programme, which Belgium presented along with Spain and Hungary in the new "trio" format created by the Lisbon Treaty (EURACTIV 26/01/10).

Belgium's final presidency programme was adopted by the prime minister's cabinet and the country’s constituent regions on 16 June. Its priorities were as follows (see summary):

  • Socio-economic issues: Re-establish growth by tackling the 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; progressing on services of general interest; stressing the EU's added value in terms of health and ageing, including pension reform.
  • Environment and climate: 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 ‘Stockholm Programme’ launched in 2009 under the Swedes; 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).
  • 1 Jan. 2011: Hungary takes over the rotating EU Presidency for six months.
  • 1 July 2011: Poland takes over the rotating EU Presidency until the end of the year.

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