The Belgian EU Presidency will see regional ministers chair a number of key EU meetings, providing an opportunity for the country's divided Dutch- and French-speaking communities to showcase their savoir-faire following a national election that highlighted the country's regionalist aspirations.
Belgium finds itself in the unenviable position of beginning its EU presidency with a caretaker government, following the resignation of Yves Leterme as prime minister in April.
However, this should have very little practical impact on the functioning of the presidency, because Belgium will be represented at many meetings by regional ministers, whose tenure was unaffected by the recent national election.
Belgium is a federal state where significant powers are devolved to the three regions of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.
As a result, a number of EU ministerial meetings will be chaired by regional ministers or by representatives of the country's three linguistic communities, which include Dutch, French and German speakers.
The Environment Council, for example, will be chaired by Joke Schauvliege, a 40-year old Flemish Christian Democrat, and the Research Council will be chaired by Benoît Cerexhe, a francophone who is science and research minister for the Brussels region.
Other meetings to be chaired by regional ministers or linguistic community representatives include EU Council meetings related to industry (J-C. Marcourt, Walloon region), tourism (I. Weykmans, German community), fisheries (K. Peeters, Flemish region), education (P. Smet, Flemish region), sport (P. Muyters, Flemish region), culture (F. Laanan, French community), and audiovisual (F. Laanan, French community) (see full list here).
Wallonia to steer regional policy debate
Regional policy, for instance, will be in the hands of French-speaking Wallonia, whose minister-president is Rudy Demotte, a socialist.
Speaking to EURACTIV, Thierry Delaval, Wallonia's EU representative, explained that Belgium, precisely because it is such a highly regionalised country, will make the policy of economic, social and territorial cohesion one of its "strong priorities".
Delaval said the presidency would investigate the role regional policy has to play beyond 2013, when the EU's new seven-year budget starts to apply. The debate will focus on what Belgium is calling the "new challenges" facing Europe – namely globalisation, climate change and Europe's ageing population.
A number of "smaller questions" will also be highlighted, such as whether extra priority should be given to the importance of cities and urban development in these "big picture" strategies, Delaval said.
'Big debate' on future of regional policy
However, the "big debate" on the future of regional policy and its related long-term funding for 2013-2020 will begin properly under the Belgian Presidency, Delaval said.
A key question will be whether all funds should go to the least-developed regions or whether a chunk of EU funding should be reserved for relatively wealthier ones to help them achieve EU targets.
The Spanish EU Presidency argued forcefully that all regions, not only the poorest ones, should benefit from cohesion funds (EURACTIV 17/02/10).
Belgian officials were at pains to stress that an EU presidency has no official position on regional policy, but Belgium as a country is known to be in favour of seeing the EU take a bigger role on the matter.
The presidency will also be steering the debate as to the effectiveness of the current policy, and exploring how the methods to measure its results can be improved.
Earmarking to stay?
Delaval indicated that recent talks with the chair of the European Parliament's regional policy committee, Danuta Hübner, had centred on the issue of earmarking – gearing a certain percentage of the EU's cohesion funds towards particular policy goals.
Hübner, who is a former EU regional policy commissioner, reminded Belgian Presidency officials that regional funding for economic growth policies was generally seen as successful, despite the overall negative assessments of the EU's Lisbon Strategy for growth and jobs, which expires this year (EURACTIV 01/04/10).
In other words, said Delaval, one could make the case that regional policy was the only area in which the Lisbon goals did succeed to any significant degree.
"The sense we get among member states is that while earmarking can be improved, no-one questions it as an objective," he added, noting that Belgium has one of the highest rates of success in absorbing EU funds.
On the issue of how much money should go to regional policy under the EU's 2013-2020 budget cycle, the Belgians are adopting a wait-and-see approach.
"Stakeholders who work in the relatively small bubble of EU regional policy are convinced that the budget should be maintained," said Delaval. But "national finance ministers are probably less convinced – particularly in this time of crisis," he added.
While the Belgian Presidency merely "wants to prove that cohesion policy is both meaningful and efficient," Delaval said regional policy would find backing from EU Council President Hermann Van Rompuy, who is a believer and could prove a key player in the debate on the policy's future budget.
"I do think he will push for regional policy to maintain its current level of the EU budget," Delaval said.