The Belgian Presidency of the European Union in Retrospect

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Hendrik Vos (Mechelen, 1972) studied Political Sciences at Ghent University where he became a professor at the Department of Political Sciences in 1999. He is currently professor and director of the Centre for EU-Studies. His research specialises in decision-making and current developments in the European Union. He has published many books and contributions in renowned professional journals and regularly takes part in international conferences. Hendrik Vos is a much asked commentator on EU affairs in newspapers and on radio and television. 

January 27, 2011
Hendrik Vos
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An impressive display of fireworks at the Mont des Arts concluded the Belgian EU presidency on 31 December. The colours of Europe and of the Spanish, Hungarian and Belgian flags became visible against a foggy sky. Even if, besides creating a joint logo, there was never any intention of intensive cooperation between the three countries, Belgium, Spain and Hungary were a so-called triumvirate, at least ostensibly so.

In the past months, the resigning Belgian ministers led thirty-six formal council meetings and sixteen informal meetings. In addition, Belgian diplomats, experts and officials chaired the working parties and committees that prepared all these meetings. We are referring here to 1943 formal meetings of council working parties besides many more informal contacts. Belgian ministers represented the council in the European Parliament, in the European Commission and at multilateral meetings on all kinds of issues, throughout the world.

Doubts at the Start

Most observers agree that the Belgian presidency was a success. This is not self-evident. Indeed, at the start of the presidency there were quite some uncertainties. In July, Belgium had no full-fledged government. Never before has the European presidency had to begin under a caretaker government. For a long time it also remained unclear if Belgium would manage to form a new government during the presidency. How would the tasks be passed on to the newcomers? Which parties would constitute the new government? Would the new ministers have enough European experience? In the end the coalition negotiations dragged on for months and the old team remained at the helm during the whole period. But also this old team created doubts: would a resigning minister radiate sufficient authority? And would the policymakers not be too focused on national politics?

The highest hopes seemed to rest on the shoulders of the people behind the scenes: experienced diplomats and officials who had prepared the presidency and mastered not only the ins and outs of all the files, but in many cases also had an excellent insight into the susceptibilities of the other Member States. Moreover, during the preparation of the presidency, good cooperation with the secretariat of the council and with the European Commission had been established.

The Trophy Cabinet of the Belgian Presidency

A presidency in the second half of the year usually does not really start until after the summer holidays. Soon after the Belgian ministers managed to score their first successes. Particularly striking was the breakthrough in the European regulation of financial supervision. The international press immediately praised Finance Minister Didier Reynders: the Belgians succeeded in finding a solution for a tough file, which, until recently, had been taboo and which, a few months earlier, had seemingly been completely blocked. The European supervision of the financial sector did not go as far as was originally aspired to (and demanded by the European Parliament), but it is an improvement compared to the present situation. As from 2011, four European watchdogs will become operative: one for the banks, one for the insurers, one to supervise stocks and markets, and lastly a committee in charge of tracking down and avoiding systemic risk.

The same Ecofin Council also reached agreements on regulations for hedge funds and a consensus on the revision of the existing regulations for rating agencies.

Other agreements relating to the crisis in the euro zone had already been reached or initiated by the European Council, led by Herman Van Rompuy. In many cases, however, they had to be given concrete shape under the Belgian presidency. One of these agreements was preparing the introduction of a European semester requiring Member States to submit their budgets to Europe, starting in the first half of 2011, before beginning to discuss them in their own countries. At the December Summit an agreement was reached on a limited modification to the treaty to provide a permanent basis for the rescue fund for countries whose budgetary problems threaten to jeopardise other euro countries.

The more structural Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs, intended to reform the European economy in the medium run and to steer it in a more sustainable direction, was adopted in June 2010. Its implementation by the Member States was followed up by the Belgian presidency, as were future initiatives of the European institutions to keep the strategy high on the agenda.

Another economic file resulting in a breakthrough was the Late Payment Directive. In future, governments will have to observe a fixed term to pay their bills. Moreover, they know what fines they face in the case of late payment.

A trying issue was the European patent. For many decades there have been attempts to give inventions in the European Union better protection. Applying for a patent in Europe is on average around ten times more expensive than in the United States. This is because of the translation fees and the fact that the application must be submitted in almost every individual Member State. In the past, regulations to simplify this procedure by limiting the number of languages have always been vetoed. Agreements on language arrangements for patents require unanimity, so the file remained stuck in a blind alley. A tentative Belgian compromise, which consisted of limiting translations to English, French and German, was unacceptable to Spain and Italy. The Belgian presidency then suggested they continue on the lines of reinforced cooperation procedure. All the Member States agreed, except for Spain and Italy. The negotiations have to be formally rounded off in 2011, but a large group of countries will have a common patent.

Not all the files on the table during the Belgian presidency have been completed. The European Parliament will have the last say on many of them during the early part of 2011. But the consensus between the Member States (in many cases after the Belgian presidency tabled a compromise) is usually a considerable step forward. Also, there were consultations behind the scenes with the parliament, which reduces the possibility of it putting any future spoke in the wheels. This also goes for the European agreements on food labels, eurovignettes (making polluting trucks pay more for the use of European roads), the possibility of collecting fines for traffic offences committed in other Member States, a clarification of the consumer protection regulations and the definition of the rights of bus passengers. Another sensitive file on which the Member States eventually found an agreement concerns patient mobility: new regulations will define the conditions under which patients will be able to seek medical treatment in other Member States.

Conspicuous in the field of external policy is the free trade agreement concluded with South Korea. Until the last minute, this far-reaching agreement met with a lot of scepticism on the part of several EU members such as Italy. There was also a consensus, in the aftermath of the floods, to further promote trade with Pakistan and to give the country easier access to the European market.

Then, in October, Brussels hosted the biennial ASEM Summit: Asian and European heads of state and government met to discuss the financial-economic crisis and other international challenges.

In the matter of multilateral environmental policy, important conferences were organised in the second half of 2010, on biodiversity (Nagoya) and climate (Cancun). The preparations within the Union, coordinated by the Belgian presidency, were, in both cases, incident-free and, unlike the climate summit of 2009, in Copenhagen, the Union succeeded in speaking with one voice during the actual conferences. In practice it was the presidency that spoke, jointly with the commissioner concerned.

The enlargement process is marked by strong internal dynamics and it is hard to gauge the precise impact of the presidency. In the second half of 2010, the start of the negotiations with Iceland was of particular note. The negotiations with Croatia could not be completed but are approaching their final stages. The talks with Turkey did not come to a standstill but are more laborious. There was no consensus on starting the competition chapter. Montenegro acquired candidate status and the rapprochement with Serbia was given new impetus.

Even if it is difficult to assess the exact role of the presidency, the above survey makes it very clear that many issues were concluded with an agreement in the second half of 2010, in many cases after having been deadlocked for a long time. Yet, there are also files, which the Belgian presidency failed to bring to a favourable conclusion. Maternity leave is perhaps the best-known example. The current regulations impose on the Member States the right to a fourteen-week maternity leave. The commission proposed to extend this period to eighteen weeks. The European Parliament took a stand and suggested an extension to twenty weeks on full pay. This was a long way from what most Member States wanted. The Belgian presidency could only conclude that this file still requires more debate.

The Implementation of the Lisbon Treaty

The Lisbon treaty has considerably changed the role of the EU presidency. The representative role has largely disappeared. At the highest political level it is indeed the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, who is now the face to the world. High Representative Catherine Ashton leads the foreign policy area. Tasks, formerly taken up by the prime ministers or foreign ministers of the presiding countries, are now implemented by Van Rompuy and Ashton.

The Spanish presidency, in the first half of 2010, found that hard to swallow. Prime Minister Zapatero did not want Van Rompuy to take his place in the international spotlight. That was why he invited American President Obama to Madrid and wanted to organise the reception himself. He failed in his ambition and Obama did not come to Europe in the first half of the year.

It was simpler under the Belgian presidency. Van Rompuy and Ashton got free scope for action and could strengthen, undisturbed, their roles as “permanent EU pawns”. During the European-US American Summit in Lisbon, in the margin of a NATO meeting, the hosts of the American President were Van Rompuy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso. The Belgian presidency wittingly kept a low profile. There is little chance that future presidencies will be able to claim back the lost ground.

The Lisbon treaty also provided for the creation of a European External Action Service. The talks on its concrete implementation were led by Ashton, in consultation with the presidency. An agreement on the functioning of this European Diplomatic Service was reached in the second half of 2010.

The Lisbon treaty brought other novelties to be further shaped under the Belgian presidency. There is the Citizens’ Initiative, for instance: one million citizens can place an item on the European Commission’s agenda. The exact modalities of collecting the signatures and testing the admissibility were defined under the Belgian presidency, despite numerous initial differences between the commission, the European Parliament and the Member States.

In addition, the Lisbon treaty has changed the procedure to adopt delegated and implementing acts. The major part of the European Union’s regulating output consists of this kind of activity. True enough, it is in many cases about very technical and detailed directives, but their nature often defines the exact implementation, strictness and concrete application under European law. In this case, too, the Lisbon treaty provided the blueprint for future negotiations on the exact modalities. The Belgian presidency also completed this file. As from March 2011, the comitology procedures of old will be replaced by a completely new practice.

The Lisbon treaty has given the European Parliament more powers in the drawing up of the budget. Discussion of the 2011 EU budget was problematic from the start. A first conciliation, in November, failed. The Parliament wanted the Member States to guarantee that it would be actively involved in drawing up the next pluriannual budget (2014 and beyond) and a fundamental debate would start on European taxes. For some Member States, including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, this was a bridge too far. Eventually, in December, a compromise was reached between the commission, the council and the parliament.

Future presidencies will also have to deal with the stronger position of the European Parliament post the Lisbon treaty. In future, the parliament will have the last say on files relating to trade, agriculture and judicial cooperation. This implies that a presiding country will have to take much more account of the susceptibilities in parliament. European agreements and laws will be subject to more than agreements among Member States. The European Parliament, too, will have to be actively involved in such deals.

The Factors of Success

With the benefit of hindsight, the only conclusion can be that an interim government is not necessarily an obstacle to a successful presidency. Maybe even the contrary: for most ministers, involvement in European activities was their chief mission in the past six months. Liberal ministers like Didier Reynders (Ecofin), Annemie Turtelboom (Home Affairs), Vincent Van Quickenborne (Competitiveness) and Sabine Laruelle (Agriculture) were not involved in the new government formation talks. Nor was the liberal Secretary of State for European Affairs, Olivier Chastel, involved in these talks. Moreover, there was an important contribution by ministers from the federal states, none of them being absorbed by the intricacies caused by the formation of the federal government; in this case Kris Peeters (Fisheries), Joke Schauvliege (Environment), Pascal Smet, Philippe Muyters and Fadila Laanan (all three in charge of Education, Youth, Culture and Sports). Other ministers from the federal government belonging to the Christian-Democratic or socialist parties took part in the formation talks, but most of them were not involved in the day-to-day negotiations. As the political attention in Belgium was focused almost completely on the laborious task of government formation, the European missions could be accomplished without jamming stations. There were no awkward parliamentary questions and the EU presidency was given little attention in the media. Ministers could quietly move on the European scene and were never called to a halt or placed under supervision. It is a remarkable observation but, in retrospect, it was a blessing that the presidency had to be implemented by a caretaker government.

A further undeniable factor of success was the diplomatic experience. The files were excellently prepared and a large team of experts and diplomats was permanently available. The team could count on an extensive network of contacts in the other Member States and with the European institutions (Council secretariat, European Commission and European Parliament). During hundreds of formal and informal meetings matters were already smoothed over before the files were submitted to the council.

Other elements also turned the Belgian presidency to good account. The second half of 2010 was indeed an interesting moment to take on the EU presidency. Indeed, in the first half of the year, several Member States still had to negotiate while pulling the handbrake. In Germany, Angela Merkel was confronted with important elections at the level of the German federal states. But particularly in the United Kingdom the forthcoming elections made it hard for the Labour government to play a constructive European role: the conservative opposition would immediately square accounts. So, in the first half of the year the British blocked, among other things, an agreement on stricter European banking regulations. The second half of 2010 was a period practically without elections. In such circumstances Member States are more willing to commit themselves to Europe. So, during the Belgian presidency there were no national elections that could disturb the negotiating dynamic.

Moreover, the second half of 2010 was still dominated by the crisis in the euro zone. This resulted in some disquiet and, in some cases, in panicky reports on the possible end of the single currency. But history proves that crises in the European Union rarely produce a paralysing effect. Times of crisis usually strengthen the European Union and its hold on its members as the latter realise that such crises mostly require a joint, European approach. So, there will be more Europe, not prompted by enthusiasm about a stronger Europe, but because it is a must. During the Belgian presidency the goals were wide open - and the balls were nicely headed in.


After the fireworks of 31 December at the conclusion of the Belgian presidency, there appeared on a laser projection: “Belgium @ Hungary: good luck”. Hungary took over the torch on 1 January. Unlike the Belgians, the Hungarians have, for a few months, had a fully fledged (centre-right) government. Nevertheless, their presidency did not start without difficulty.

They recently adopted a new Media Act that, in the opinion of many people, seriously hampers the freedom of the press. Opposition parties, NGOs, the European Commission and many prominent European politicians, also within the political fraction of the Hungarian prime minister, worry and openly criticise. Moreover, it came to light at the start of presidency that several foreign companies in Hungary would be liable for extra tax, which may run counter to European regulations. The commission has started an investigation.

In the first place, however, there are doubts about the quality of the people behind the scenes: the sort of people who played such a crucial role during the Belgian presidency. The Hungarian Permanent Representation has less staff than the permanent representations of most other Member States. Moreover, several senior diplomats were replaced after the recent change of government. By and large there are fears that the inexperienced Hungarian diplomats lack the skills to make the presidency a success. Rumour has it that even the knowledge of languages of both ministers and diplomats is poor.

The Belgian presidency, too, started with numerous doubts. It now remains to be seen if the Hungarians can remove these doubts in a way equally convincingly as the Belgians.