The Belgian Presidency of the European Union - An assessment

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January 27, 2011
Mario Telo
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Implementing the Treaty of Lisbon

Does Europe need good administrators or innovative political leadership? It is too early to give a definitive evaluation of the Belgian presidency response to this issue. It is a question of knowing just how far the presidency went beyond that of playing the honest broker and took on the role of providing the necessary driving force required by the EU with regard to internal and external developments.

It has been well recognised by the international press, Members of the European Parliament and the Commission that the Council of Ministers has performed well during the last six months. It has not just been the diplomatic team led by Olivier Chastel but also ministers under the acting government of Yves Leterme, especially Minister of Foreign Affairs, Steven Vanackere and ministers for the regions (responsible for decentralised issues) that have kept the institutional machinery well oiled and even achieved unexpected results. It was not, therefore, surprising that they were officially congratulated at a press conference on Monday, 20 December 2010, for the results obtained during the Belgian rotating presidency that ran from 1 July to 31 December 2010. It was not just the obvious professionalism of Belgian diplomats that was noteworthy but also the devotion and skill shown by all officials, including the impressive amount of time spent in consultation with other institutions and national governments.

Overall, it was a question of allowing the Treaty of Lisbon to begin demonstrating its first fruits, one of which is a more understated role for the rotating presidency, especially in the area of external relations. In the new institutional order dominated by three personalities (the President of the European Council, former Belgian prime minister, Herman van Rompuy, the President of the European Commission, José Barroso, strengthened by parliamentary legitimacy and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Lady Catherine Ashton) and taking into account the co-decision powers that have accrued to the European Parliament as a result of the Lisbon treaty, experts have unanimously deemed the rotating presidency of the European Council to have been the loser.

There is, however, still some significant room for initiative and the Belgian presidency, when chairing all the various special councils (foreign affairs council excepted) and COREPER meetings, was undeniably successful in being able to play the role of honest broker mediating between the Member States and institutions to create an atmosphere conducive to communication and compromise, especially in difficult areas such as how to tackle the economic crisis or agree the next European Union budget.

Of special note was the good work done by the General Affairs Council (GAC) that, along with Herman van Rompuy, ensured that the European Councils of 14 September, 28/29 October and 16/17 December were well prepared and the specialised horizontal councils (such as EU 2020) were properly coordinated.

It has been demonstrated that it is absolutely vital to find a role for the prime minister of the country holding the rotating presidency, who, paradoxically, has no visible function during this period except to present the programme to the European Parliament and coordinate the presidency. One should remember that in the absence of the High Representative, it is the minister of foreign affairs of the rotating presidency country who will chair the Foreign Affairs Council. In addition, the new powers and competences of the European Parliament mean that it is vitally important that the two legislative institutions work together, as the controversy over the future EU budget has demonstrated.

Belgium also paid due attention to the ‘trio programme’ that is designed to limit the negative internal and external consequences of a rotating presidency that changes every six months. The programme covers a period of 18 months (in the Belgian case a period that includes the Spanish and Hungarian presidencies). These three countries have worked well together and created a precedent that could well influence future trios.

It would not be fair if one did not raise the issues that have been left for future presidencies. The success of Minister Melchior Wathelet in the negotiations on the EU budget after a number of setbacks and threats from rich Member States (Germany, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Sweden who held sway at the 10 December Council) was the result of the willingness of the parliament (vote of 15 December) and the commission to cooperate. As the reasons for requesting an increased budget of between 2.9% and 5.9% are good ones there are a few clouds on the horizon as the EU will not be able to implement its new policy priorities due to lack of funds. The European External Action Service and international affairs in general, immigration policy and the Agenda 2020 programme for technological innovation will be affected. The European Parliament has obtained some modest additional funding and a promise that the next four rotating presidencies will guarantee its participation in the multi-annual budget negotiations. A full assessment of the Belgian presidency will therefore not be possible for some time.

Policies to overcome the crisis

The Belgian presidency had to deal with a most extraordinary situation given the length of the international economic crises and the worsening situation in the euro zone that, in the course of 2010 became a prime example of a sick world, described by Valery Giscard d’Estaing (20 December) coming under attack from its constant enemy the ‘Anglo Saxon financiers’. In such a situation the challenge was and remains one of making cuts. Good administration is simply not enough. There is a need for innovation in governance and the way the EU institutions function. During the Belgian presidency the EU advanced in four areas:

Against international financial speculation that in 2007/8 triggered the international crisis: the complex agreement on financial supervision that was agreed in July 2010, obtained as a result of the work done by Minister Didier Reynders, who was able to reconcile the views of ECOFIN members, the commission and the parliament, does, despite its limits and weaknesses, permit better control of financial markets and allows for the removal of toxic financial products that endanger the whole system. Agencies have been created to control banks and insurers and the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) that will come into operation in 2011 will control flaws in the financial system. The council and the parliament have finally approved a directive on the management of alternative investment (and hedge) funds.

The need to go beyond the weak article 99 of the treaty to enable easier macroeconomic policy convergence: the agreement to a ‘European semester’ will involve Member States presenting their draft national budgets along with their programmes for structural reform to the council from 1 January 2011. Clearly the EU will not be able to require a Member State, especially a large one, to change its budget but the comparison of national budgets may well bring about improvements as, in their own interest, countries seek to follow best practice. We will see in the course of 2011 if this will bring positive results given that the asymmetric nature of the treaty causes divergence with its strong emphasis on monetary union and a weak approach to economic union.

The reform of central economic governance (especially the Stability and Growth Pact of 1997, revised in 2005) required the creation of a council task force and the personal involvement of President van Rompuy, who has already spearheaded a move in favour of a central political role for the European Council in this very sensitive but vital area. In effect it means saving the euro from attacks by international speculators. The rotating presidency collaborated actively in this area.

The European Council agreement in September was viewed two ways. It was impossible not to recognise that Germany had given in to a ‘stability mechanism’ fund (440 billion within the framework of a 750 billion global package, including the IMF contribution). In exchange, Germany received a minor reform of the treaty (simple revision of article 136 of the Lisbon treaty) that says the mechanism will only intervene if absolutely necessary for the preservation of the euro zone and that all financial assistance will be subject to strict conditionality. This latter was to prevent an objection from the federal constitutional court in Karlsruhe. The European Parliament and the international press were also critical. Given the limited nature of the European Council conclusions in December, one should underline two particular points raised by expert commentators: the new mechanism will only enter into force in 2013 (January or June is not clear), which will be too late, given the urgent nature of the problems those countries in danger face from international speculators. Secondly, Germany (supported by UK, Sweden and the Netherlands) refuses the creation of Eurobonds as envisaged by Delors in his 1993 White Paper and re-launched by various figures such as Junker, Tremonti and Cohn Bendit and supported by the European Parliament and parts of the Commission. According to some supporters these bonds would be capable of attracting private capital. The objection of the rich countries is that the non-virtuous will lose all incentive to improve (international rating of their public debt). This coming year will demonstrate who in this poker game that endangers the people of Europe is correct.

d) The connection between overcoming the crisis and the EU 2020 strategy for employment and innovation. This complex programme that has been dominated since March 2010 by the Barroso Commission will provide approved guidelines on economic growth and employment. The March council should provide a decisive step, as it will concentrate on an initial evaluation of how far EU 2020 has advanced in this current decade.

An important aspect of the EU’s international competitiveness is the European patent. The competitiveness council, presided by Belgian Van Quickenborne, in the absence of obtaining a unanimous decision on the linguistic regime (after 10 years of negotiations), moved towards agreeing a proposal from around a dozen countries (including France, Germany and UK) for a system of reinforced cooperation that would start in 2011 and have a linguistic regime of three languages, English, French and German. The concept of reinforced cooperation has been mentioned in treaties since the treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 but it has rarely been used until the present (for divorce between couples of dual nationality). Italy and Spain both critical because of the exclusion of their languages are opposed because reinforced cooperation according to Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frattini, was not conceived to get around the Community’s usual democratic mechanisms and could be incompatible with the principles and functioning of the single market as the agreement only concerns the signatory countries. These two countries and their allies are unable to stop the others going ahead as the treaty allows one third of the Member States to proceed with reinforced cooperation on condition that it is not prejudicial to the policies and objectives of the EU. This will be a first in a very sensitive area. Developments will need to be followed, as this will be a test case as to which future blockages in the council might also be circumvented by reinforced cooperation.

The battle for social Europe was both remarkable and typically Belgian. Ministers Onkelinx and Milquet succeeded, after a push from the council, in setting up an operation inspired by the initial aims of the Lisbon strategy and in danger of being marginalised in the coming decade: namely the restoration of the balance between the role of ECOFIN and that of the new coordination between various specialised Councils dealing with social issues. It concerns the institutionalisation of the report of the EPSCO Council (employment, social policy, health and consumers) before each European Council and especially the annual March meeting. The agreed procedure envisages guidelines with monitoring of follow up of national plans and their implementation. Countries that fail to meet their obligations in line with the open coordination method run the risk of receiving a bad report. The idea that employment and social cohesion could help overcome the crisis rather than represent costs was introduced to the international scientific community between 2007 and 2009 (see the publications of American Nobel laureate Paul Krugman on the advantages of the social situation in Europe). It is therefore very significant as long as the trade-off includes the employment guidelines (European strategy for employment is part of the 2020 agenda and will be a central theme at the March European Council) as well as the method. Of special note is the value the presidency has given to the social dialogue and consultation with social partners.

Other results concerning life in the EU: the European Citizens’ Initiative

The Council of Ministers has agreed a regulation (approved by the European Parliament 15 December after considerable revision of the commission’s original proposal) for the implementation of the Lisbon treaty article dealing with participative democracy. In 2011 the commission and the Member States will have to set up the necessary administrative structures for this. Olivier Chastel declared it to be ‘a world first’. Nowhere in the world can one million people from seven countries (a quarter of the countries in the EU) introduce a proposition for a new supranational law as is now possible in the EU. Every European Citizens’ Initiative will get a public hearing in the European Parliament even if the commission declines to proceed with a legislative proposal. One question remaining concerns whether signatories must be citizens of a Member State or just residents.

Cancun Conference on Climate Change

Compared to the catastrophic impression left by the December 2009 Copenhagen conference, the UN conference in Cancun to limit global warming (UNFCCC, 29 November – 10 December and COP 16) appeared to have had a good result, marking a step towards a legally binding agreement that optimists estimate can be reached at Durban in 2011. NGOs criticised the agreement for not being legally binding but compared to Copenhagen it was a success for multilateralism and consensus. At the signatory level (192 parties), Paul Magnette, Federal Minister of Energy (and Joke Schauvliege, Minister of Environment of the Flemish government), in collaboration with Commissioner Hedegaard, played an important role in coordinating the EU 27, despite serious internal differences. According to Steven Vanackere, minister of foreign affairs, the Union spoke with one voice and made a contribution to the advance of a global consensus. Commentators declared the Mexican presidency to have been impeccable and the emerging nations played a key role. Here are the main points of the Cancun agreement:

  • he quarrel over maintaining the Kyoto Protocol and the delaying tactics of the US and Japan has been sidestepped;
  • The setting up of a long-term cooperation framework and a Green Climate Fund (100 million dollars from 2011 to 2020 to assist developing countries);
  • Agreement to reduce emissions from de-forestation and forest degradation (REDD);
  • A working group to draw up in detail the legal form of the agreement that will be presented in Durban.

External Relations

As part of further treaty implementation, Lady Ashton asked the rotating presidency to participate on 1 December in the official launching of the European External Action Service (EEAS). This was not easy due to the European Parliament’s objections to its budget and the status of its officials. The ongoing dispute meant that the launch was more low key than had been foreseen. There will initially be around 1600 officials, expanding to 6000 including those in the central office and those serving in the 140 delegations around the world.

As is evident in the Treaty of Lisbon, the rotating presidency has only very limited competence at major summit level but this time the presidency did well with important strategic partners. During this term, meetings with the US in Lisbon (good understanding on security and economic issues although no new ideas), with Russia (green light for entry into WTO and better climate change measures after the meeting in Lisbon with NATO), with China and India (partnership policy getting underway). The only major international meeting run completely by the rotating presidency and Belgian diplomats was the ASEM summit with the countries of East Asia, held in Brussels at the beginning of October. It was a success as a forum for bilateral meetings but it was not really an institutionalised dialogue – more an informal one – nor one that recognized the EU’s post Lisbon external affairs reality. These points need careful consideration if one is to take into account the set back the EU had when its attempt to speak at the General Assembly of the UN was turned down in September.

More important was the Belgian contribution to the enlargement dossier, where the feeling of “fatigue” still lingers after its explosion during the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands. There have been some small advances in negotiations with Croatia and Iceland but not enough and Hungary will have to conclude these negotiations during the next presidency. In the Western Balkans, Montenegro has received candidate status and is top of a long list knocking on the EU’s door that includes Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia.

What about the most important issue Turkey? There is total stagnation on this front. The negative developments in this negotiation should not be underestimated but for the moment this suits both parties. The EU, because particularly big Member States such as France and Germany have to contend with negative public opinion (manipulated or not), is for the most cool on Turkish membership, preferring a special partnership. But also in Turkey, a majority of the population, disappointed with the hesitations and the phobia against Islam whipped up by some Europeans, is now against continuing with a candidacy that appears to be at a dead end. Whatever future presidencies think, the EU will need to calculate carefully the effects of Turkey’s more distanced stance and its international role as an independent actor in the difficult geopolitical arena of the Middle East (the Israeli–Palestinian conflict), the Caucasus and the region stretching from Iran to Afghanistan/Pakistan.

It would be unfair to blame the Belgian presidency for a second policy stagnation, in effect a drawing back, in the Mediterranean. The press, not without reason, has spoken about the death of EU policy in this area, originally initiated by France in 2008 but blocked by lack of funding for the concrete projects that had already been started. One should also note the lack of EU profile in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in contrast to the Solana years and the setting up of the Lebanese mission in 2007. But with the new treaty, the rotating presidency has little to do in this area.