What will be “sober, plain and simple”? But also “tricky” and “not glamorous”?
Estonian Euro coins? No, it is the upcoming Belgian Council presidency – at least this is the characterisation of senior Belgian officials. As we are approaching its start, on July 1st, everyone is eager to hear about the famous presidency priorities. The fact that nowadays there is a set of common priorities for the 18 months trio presidency seems to be forgotten, by both the great public and, strangely, sometimes even by the respective countries. Every country still seems to have its own agenda, or at least it is expected to.
Belgium, however, is in a rather awkward, not enviable position right now. Not only does it have to deal with the Euro crisis, while trying to implement the institutional changes brought by the Lisbon Treaty, it is also facing yet again an internal political crisis with the government’s resignation in late April and elections scheduled on June 13th, merely two weeks before the beginning of the Presidency. Furthermore (as if all this alone was not enough), Belgium has one of the most complex federal systems, with three government levels with various (exclusive and shared) fields of competencies. A miniature EU, one might dare to say. This could mean good news: since it has developed a rather complicated but still quite manageable system at home, Belgium must have enough experience to steer the EU in all its changing (and challenging) complexity. But it could also mean bad news, when misfortune strikes both in its own backyard and beyond it. And this seems to be the current situation.
So what are the Belgian presidency’s priorities? Well, this is quite a “tricky” topic, seeing all the above reasons and baring in mind the expectations, the much talked about “need for leadership”, combined with the rather unclear EU representation responsibility envisaged by the Lisbon Treaty. No diplomatic effort is spared to convey the message that the 2010 Belgian presidency will be rather low key, “sober, plain and simple”. Not much of an own agenda (we do have the agenda of the Trio Presidency, remember?), not much visibility (we do have a permanent President of the European Council- which happens to be a Belgian- and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs); and probably a weaker authority, due to internal political instability.
In practical terms, the Presidency will probably not suffer a great deal from the domestic struggles. Even if a new government will not be in place by July 1st (which will probablybe the case), the current government will act as a caretaker and will start the Presidency. Later on, if a new government will be formed during the 6 months, it will take over and, of course, this will mean a change at the level of ministerial representation. However, in practice, this is not as bad and destabilising as it seems. Luckily, as I mentioned before, the Belgian system is complex enough to ensure that things keep working in times of political instability. Due to its federal nature, the representation in the Council is shared between the various levels (federal, regions and communities), depending on the topic. The system is very well organised and for the shared competences a rotation mechanism is put into place whereby the various regions, communities and the federal level succeed each other in chairing the respective Council formations. So well thought through, that even when one piece of the puzzle is missing (in this case a federal government) business as usual continues. The downside of this power-sharing mechanism is that if the various stakeholders disagree on a certain topic, Belgium is bound to be silent in the EU arena. It happened before (see the “Service directive”) and it might prove to be problematic if it happens during the Belgian presidency.
The focus on action and output, instead of a long list of priorities that might all be turned upside down by surprise events (Belgium was holding its last EU Presidency when the 9/11 events took place) is commendable. It is, nevertheless, questionable whether what Europe needs right now is a voiceless, low key leader, adopting an “ostrich strategy”. We can only hope that, if not a memorable Presidency (like some of the previous Belgian ones), the upcoming 6 months can prove that the Belgian model of functioning without a government for fairly long periods of time without the day to day life of its citizens being directly affected can be successfully copy-pasted at EU level. It is, by no means the visionary approach on EU integration of the EU’s founding fathers, but in the current situation we would probably be better off with the least harm.