7 July 2010
Every six months, the European Union (EU) gets a different national twist, as the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU passes on from one Member State to another. On 1 July, Belgium took the torch from Spain and will keep it until the end of December, with Hungary waiting next in line.
The rotating Presidency system was blamed for much of the inconsistency within the EU policy-making process and the fragmented representation abroad with a changing set of national leaders representing the EU. Therefore, the Lisbon Treaty established the post of a permanent President of the European Council (where the Heads of State or Government meet). And yet, the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU (also known as the Council of Ministers) was not abolished, because Member States have always perceived it as a matter of national pride and a possibility to directly influence the EU agenda.
While the most significant political discussions are taking place between EU leaders at the European Council, headed by Mr Herman Van Rompuy, the rotating Presidency still continues to be an essential element within the EU’s decision making system. Belgium will chair nine various Council meetings of different ministers, apart from the Foreign Affairs Council (meeting of foreign ministers), headed by Baroness Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The Belgian Presidency will have to engage in dialogue with the European Commission (which has the right of legislative initiative), to broker compromises between Member States, and to negotiate with the European Parliament, whose legislative powers have been considerably strengthened by the Lisbon Treaty.
Belgium, one of the founding countries of the European Community, has promised a “modest” Presidency, whose aim will be to “promote the proper functioning of the EU institutions”. Belgian officials have indicated that they will not compete for the limelight with the Union’s new top posts – the President of the European Council and the High Representative. This might also increase the importance of the European Council itself, which, as many observers note, has recently been playing more important role than, for instance, the European Commission. Belgium also supports a strong European Commission that must remain the “driving force for European integration”.
While such a position corresponds to Belgium’s traditional pro-European stance, currently Belgium is not well-positioned to assume a strong leadership role during its Presidency. Wrought by divisions between Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Wallon communities, Belgium has only a caretaker government in charge of day-to-day matters, led by the outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme. With the political parties stalled in coalition talks (in the last month’s elections, voters in the northern Dutch-speaking region of Flanders handed victory to the separatist New Flemish Alliance, raising fears that the country could break apart), no one can really predict when the new government would be sworn in (for instance, in 2007, Belgium lived for more than half a year without a government). This, however, means that the country’s ministerial team might change in the middle of its Presidency, thus putting the ministers new to their portfolios in a rather difficult position. The EU experienced a similar situation last year, when the Czech government fell halfway through its Presidency. Nevertheless, the EU officials have repeatedly voiced their “100% confidence” in Belgium’s ability to successfully fulfil its role as a presiding country. Countries usually prepare their presidencies two years ahead, and Belgium, as one of the founding countries of the European Community, has a very good experience: this will be its 12th Presidency.
It is widely expected that Mr Van Rompuy, a former Belgian Prime Minister, will try use the low-profile Belgian Presidency to strengthen and expand his own position as the President of the European Council. He will push ahead his efforts in, for instance, coordinating the work on issues like economic governance and to profile himself as a central figure in the EU’s attempts to overcome the current economic crisis. He is already heading the special task force, which is due to come out with a report and recommendations on reforming the economic governance of the EU in October. Given the fact that the Commission is also working on the subject, it will be up to the Belgian Presidency to consolidate the two positions.
Indeed, the current crisis inevitably will dominate the EU’s agenda in the coming six months. In its Presidency’s Programme, Belgium foresees a focus on financial regulation and economic governance. Other priorities include issues ranging from climate change to combating poverty within the EU. In general, Belgium’s priorities correspond to the overall priorities agreed by the so-called Trio of Presidencies (Spain, Belgium and Hungary) in their 18 month programme of the Council.
Externally, it is going to be an “invisible” presidency. While the Spanish Presidency tried to leave its imprint on the EU’s external relations that led to some frictions between Madrid and Brussels, Belgium’s Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere declared: “The implementation of the Lisbon treaty will be a key part of the Belgian presidency. That is why you will not hear my views on foreign policy.” He said that Belgian diplomatic apparatus “will be at [Baroness Ashton’s] disposal (…) to do everything she considers the rotating presidency should do”. The main priority of the Presidency will be the setting up of the European External Action Service, the new diplomatic corps of the EU, which is expected to be up and running by the end of the year. So this semester will be crucial time for Baroness Ashton to skilfully position herself as the main person in the EU’s external relations. So far, she has received more criticism than appraisal by national politicians and observers alike.
Amidst the short description of the “strategic relationships with our partners”, the Programme of the Presidency gives a special mention to the upcoming Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit, hosted by Belgium on 4-5 October. Being one of the only two specific events mentioned in the Programme (the other one being the EU-Africa summit – Belgium has traditionally had a strong interest in the EU-Africa relationships, given its colonial history in Congo), it will, according to the Presidency, “provide an opportunity for privileged dialogue between Europe and Asia” in order to find a “common ground on the reform of economic and financial governance in the wake of the crisis and on sustainable development in particular”.
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