Why the incoming EU presidency will not suffer from Belgium’s domestic turmoil

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

Despite the domestic political turmoil in the country, Belgium's forthcoming EU presidency will probably be unaffected and run smoothly for a number of reasons, including the introduction of a Council president and the country's experience as a member state, write Steven Van Hecke and Peter Bursens, members of the Research Group on European and International Politics at the University of Antwerp, in an exclusive commentary for EURACTIV.

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

''During the second half of 2010 Belgium will hold the presidency of the Council of the EU. Recently, Belgium has listed five areas as priorities for the EU agenda in the next six months.

  1. Socio-economic policies, mainly focused on the implementation of the Europe 2020 Strategy and the management of the euro crisis;
  2. A social agenda, focusing among other issues on initiatives framed within the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion;
  3. Policies on climate, environment and energy, including the task to represent the EU at the COP 16 in Cancún;
  4. The Stockholm Programme (justice, asylum and migration), and;
  5. External relations, involving the start of the European External Action Service and a number of ongoing enlargement dossiers such as Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey.

Belgium's EU presidency coincides with a severe domestic political crisis. The federal government was forced to resign in April and the subsequent elections for the federal parliament in June have brought a substantial power shift. Hence the presidency will start with a Belgian caretaker government at the helm.

Whether it will also end without a regular government depends on the pace of the negotiations that should lead to a new coalition government. If these turn out to be as cumbersome as in 2007 (when they lasted almost nine months), it will be up to the Hungarian Presidency to welcome a new Belgian government.

Political parties have been warning that a crisis of the federal government had to be avoided by all means in order not to jeopardise the Belgian Presidency. And since the same parties eventually did not prevent such a crisis, both inside and outside Belgium, politicians and journalists have been discussing the negative impact of the domestic situation on the performance of the Belgian Presidency.

But is there any substantial reason for such worries? We don't think so. We argue that the Belgian Presidency will not suffer from the domestic situation and will most probably be able to manage all its priorities in a successful way.

  • The Lisbon Treaty has decapitated the rotating presidency. The introduction of a permanent president of the European Council abolished the rotation at the level of heads of state and prime minister. The presidency no longer chairs the European Council. The same is true for the Foreign Affairs Council, which will be presided over by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. 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.
  • Despite the carefully selected priorities, a rotating presidency needs above all to run the shop for six months. After all, the rolling agenda dominates the issues to be discussed by the Council. In addition, unexpected – often international events – can disturb the agenda. One prominent example was of course the 9/11 attack during the previous Belgian Presidency in 2001. In the post-Lisbon regime however, such events will be tackled by other actors: security threats will have to be countered by Ashton, while Van Rompuy will coordinate the response to economic and financial challenges.
  • In some EU policy areas such as environment, agriculture and the single market, the rotating presidency is still pretty much in charge. Particularly in these domains, Belgian civil servants, diplomats and politicians have been preparing themselves intensively for more than two years. They have been trained to chair meetings and forge compromises. Implementation during the presidency will follow quite automatically without much need for intervention by the federal government.
  • Belgium is a member state with substantial experience. It has been in the presidency chair eleven times before and was quite often confronted with challenging events, as in 2001. Every time Belgium has been applauded for its creative and effective work. It was able to force breakthroughs and to manage severe crises. It seems to be a tradition that Belgium, as a small and pro-integration member state, chooses to serve European goals rather than to defend its own interests. This might even be more the case with a caretaker government in charge. A fierce defence of national interests presumes a clear definition of these interests. As Belgian politicians will be mainly dealing with domestic issues, there won't be much time left to define those interests.
  • A presidency is above all run by functionaries and diplomats, and much less by politicians. The latter will, of course, be in the spotlight of mass media, but the bulk of the work is carried out behind the scenes by experts. One might even argue that the administrators will have more chance of success without interference from the political level. 
  • Given the constitutional position of the Belgian regions in EU policymaking and the substantial competencies they have, only a minority of EU meetings will be chaired by the Belgian federal level. Most of the work will be done by regional representatives whose governments continue 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.
  • Whatever political parties will eventually take 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. It is no coincidence that the N-VA organised an international press conference in which a European flag was shown very prominently. Also on election night the party celebrated its victory with almost as many European flags as there were Flemish flags.

Concluding, we don't see any reason to expect a profound negative impact of the current domestic turmoil on the performance of the Belgian Presidency.

Whether the image of Belgium in Europe is again being harmed is of course another issue. Probably the Belgian political elites don't take this image very seriously as they don't devote much attention to Europe anyway. Just think of the total absence of Europe during the electoral campaign, despite the forthcoming EU presidency.

As always, domestic issues prevailed. The EU and the rest of the world did simply not exist. In the same way, the Belgian Presidency will most probably run smoothly, irrespective of Belgium's domestic situation.''

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