Belgium

1. Euroscepticism and European Parliament elections

Europe: out of sight, but not out of mind

Although large­ly recep­tive to the EU, Belgium’s polit­i­cal land­scape does not present a uni­fied pro-Euro­pean front and some dif­fer­ences deserve to be high­light­ed. At least three dif­fer­ent poten­tial debates coex­ist in Bel­gium. First­ly, par­ties tend to adopt dif­fer­ent posi­tions on the found­ing val­ues of Euro­pean iden­ti­ty. While some par­ties such as pop­ulist and far-right par­ties are more like­ly to adopt cul­tur­al­ly exclu­sive cri­te­ria, oth­ers defend broad­er lib­er­al val­ues. Sec­ond­ly, Bel­gian par­ties dis­agree about the insti­tu­tion­al frame­work of the EU, and the degree of sov­er­eign­ty they want to share with the Euro­pean lev­el. Third­ly, the choic­es made and the pub­lic poli­cies enact­ed by the EU also lead to dif­fer­ent reac­tions among par­ties depend­ing on their respec­tive ide­olo­gies. Accord­ing­ly, over the past years, the atten­tion of par­ties in Bel­gium was first and fore­most focused on Euro­pean eco­nom­ic gov­er­nance and the Euro-zone cri­sis man­age­ment. In this regard, the sit­u­a­tion has not real­ly changed since the 2009 elec­tions, although some par­ties tend to adopt a tougher tone on the top­ic. This is the case for instance for the French-speak­ing Social­ist Par­ty (PS), which has strong­ly crit­i­cised the bud­getary con­trol pre­rog­a­tives of the Com­mis­sion, or both of the Green par­ties (ECOLO and Groen), which have reject­ed the Treaty on Sta­bil­i­ty, Coor­di­na­tion and Gov­er­nance (TSCG) at the fed­er­al lev­el.

If not over­ly salient, the cam­paign for the EU Com­mis­sion Pres­i­den­cy was quite wide­ly relayed by the media in Bel­gium, essen­tial­ly for two rea­sons. First, being the cap­i­tal of Europe, Brus­sels was at the heart of the cam­paign, at least at the begin­ning. Sec­ond, media’s atten­tion was also dri­ven by the fact that one of the can­di­dates, Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt, is a for­mer Prime Min­is­ter of the coun­try. Notwith­stand­ing that the elec­tion of a new Euro­pean Par­lia­ment will also be fol­lowed by the des­ig­na­tion of a new Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Coun­cil to replace Her­man Van Rompuy, also a for­mer Bel­gian Prime min­is­ter.

Far away from hard Euroscepticism

Both from a cit­i­zens’ and an elite’s per­spec­tive, Bel­gium is a pio­neer of the Euro­pean inte­gra­tion process. As repeat­ed­ly shown by Euro­barom­e­ter sur­veys, a large major­i­ty of the Bel­gian pop­u­la­tion sup­ports the EU with a score con­sis­tent­ly above EU aver­age. Sim­i­lar­ly, Euro­pean Treaty rat­i­fi­ca­tions were nev­er real­ly chal­lenged by polit­i­cal par­ties. Up to now, the largest divide with­in the nation­al par­lia­ment con­cerned the Euro­pean Defence Com­mu­ni­ty Treaty back in the 1950s, with ‘only’ 75.5 per­cent of Bel­gian MPs sup­port­ing it.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, objec­tive rea­sons explain Belgium’s favourable stance towards Europe. Its open econ­o­my, locked between France and Ger­many, sug­gests that the coun­try is large­ly ben­e­fit­ing from com­mon rules at the EU lev­el. Bel­gium is also a small coun­try with no strong stand or pre­ten­sion at the inter­na­tion­al lev­el. After the fail­ure of its ‘neu­tral­i­ty’ pol­i­cy in the two world wars, it res­olute­ly engaged itself in the transat­lantic mul­ti­lat­er­al defence strat­e­gy. Fur­ther­more, at the nation­al lev­el, there is no strong sense of nation­al belong­ing.

Over the past two decades, Euroscep­ti­cism was first and fore­most expressed by the Vlaams Belang, the Flem­ish main far-right par­ty, although speak­ing of “hard” Euroscep­ti­cism was not obvi­ous (Deschouw­er, Van Ass­che). In Bel­gium, even EU oppo­nents seem to rec­og­nize the pos­i­tive effects of inte­gra­tion. In addi­tion, the lat­est elec­tions have proved very unfavourable to the Vlaams Belang, as it had already been the case a few years ago for the Lijst Dedeck­er, the Flem­ish Pop­ulist Par­ty. Hence, despite a slight increase of rad­i­cal left and pop­ulist par­ties in the south of the coun­try, Euroscep­ti­cism in Bel­gium is prob­a­bly at its low­est in many years.

European elections: between ‘super-poll’ and compulsory voting

Com­pared to oth­er mem­ber states, Euro­pean elec­tions in Bel­gium do not well accom­mo­date the con­cept of ‘sec­ond-order nation­al elec­tions’ as gen­er­al­ly accept­ed. Turnout is very high due to the fact that vot­ing is com­pul­so­ry (around 90 per­cent for the 2014 elec­tions of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment). The fed­er­al state is organ­ised at dif­fer­ent and some­times imbri­cat­ed lev­els of pow­er, which makes protest vot­ing hard to con­strue. Indeed, in Bel­gium, dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ments coex­ist at the region­al and nation­al lev­els, while often formed by dif­fer­ent coali­tions of par­ties. More­over, no clear shift of vot­ers towards small and/or rad­i­cal polit­i­cal par­ties can be observed between nation­al and Euro­pean elec­tions. Nonethe­less, it must be acknowl­edged that Europe is rarely at the top of the polit­i­cal agen­da and that the gen­er­al con­sen­sus around Euro­pean issues great­ly lim­its its cov­er­age by the Bel­gian media. Fur­ther­more, in 2014, the deci­sion to hold the fed­er­al, region­al and Euro­pean elec­tions on the same day made the elec­tion to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment even less vis­i­ble to a major­i­ty of the Bel­gian peo­ple, as most media and polit­i­cal atten­tion has been drawn away by the oth­er two con­tests.

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2. The EU’s Neighbourhood

Small brother is watching you!

Although Belgium’s open econ­o­my is first and fore­most ori­ent­ed towards oth­er EU mem­ber states, Bel­gium has built strong eco­nom­ic rela­tions with third coun­tries, among which Rus­sia occu­pies an impor­tant place. More specif­i­cal­ly, because of its promi­nent weight in some par­tic­u­lar sec­tors such as chem­i­cal prod­ucts or equip­ment and man­u­fac­tured goods, Rus­sia is often seen as an eco­nom­ic part­ner that can­not be over­looked. The strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance of trade between Bel­gium and Rus­sia was, for instance, high­light­ed by a vis­it of King Philippe, at that time Prince of Bel­gium, togeth­er with an out­stand­ing del­e­ga­tion of Bel­gian entre­pre­neurs in 2011. Nonethe­less, in spite of this trad­ing poten­tial, polit­i­cal rela­tions between Rus­sia and Bel­gium remain puz­zling. The coun­try is reg­u­lar­ly crit­i­cised by Bel­gian polit­i­cal elites for its lack of demo­c­ra­t­ic account­abil­i­ty and for its for­eign pol­i­cy at the Euro­pean bor­ders or dur­ing inter­na­tion­al crises such as in Syr­ia. Most of the crit­i­cisms tend also to be direct­ed towards Vladimir Putin and what is often con­sid­ered as an author­i­tar­i­an rule. How­ev­er, Bel­gium, being a small coun­try with­out strong ambi­tions on the inter­na­tion­al scene, most­ly relies on the EU lev­el to set­tle inter­na­tion­al polit­i­cal issues. In com­par­i­son to some oth­er EU coun­tries, Bel­gian ener­gy depen­dence on Rus­sia is rather lim­it­ed, which tends to lim­it the salien­cy of the debate.

Going with the EU flow

Bel­gium has unan­i­mous­ly con­demned Rus­sia for its inter­fer­ence in the Ukrain­ian cri­sis. Over­all, it sup­ports a com­mon line ori­ent­ed towards more polit­i­cal solu­tions and mutu­al dia­logue between the Ukrain­ian peo­ples and, indi­rect­ly, between Europe and Rus­sia. In gen­er­al, the Bel­gian polit­i­cal land­scape tends to be rather uni­fied on inter­na­tion­al issues and, regard­ing events in Ukraine, all the major par­ties have accept­ed the Min­istry of For­eign Affairs’ line of incre­men­tal sanc­tions as nego­ti­at­ed at the EU lev­el. With­in the par­lia­ment, dif­fer­ent points of view were nonethe­less raised on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of adopt­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions towards Rus­sia. While it is glob­al­ly accept­ed that sanc­tions should be care­ful enough not to lead to a back­fir­ing on Ukrain­ian cit­i­zens’ and Europe’s inter­ests, both the N‑VA (Flem­ish nation­al­ists) and the Open-VLD (Flem­ish lib­er­als) expressed their will­ing­ness to adopt strong sanc­tions. This was also the posi­tion of Green par­ties, although to a less­er extent.

Turkey in the EU: Yes, but…

The debate over Turkey’s acces­sion to the EU has large­ly fad­ed away in recent years — and some­what unsur­pris­ing­ly so, giv­en the rel­a­tive step­ping back of Turkey itself. Although the issue had nev­er been as salient as in oth­er EU mem­ber states (such as France or Ger­many), the posi­tion of indi­vid­ual par­ties, of the gov­ern­ment and of pub­lic opin­ion deserves renewed atten­tion. The offi­cial posi­tion of the gov­ern­ment and of main­stream par­ties has almost always been that of favour­ing nego­ti­a­tions. Albeit insist­ing on the ful­fil­ment of the Copen­hagen cri­te­ria and adding to them the need to insure the inte­gra­tion capac­i­ty of the EU, no main­stream Bel­gian par­ty is open­ly against the adhe­sion prospect. More in-depth accounts sug­gest that the green and lib­er­al par­ty fam­i­lies have prob­a­bly shown the most enthu­si­asm. In addi­tion, it should be men­tioned that the two cur­rent lead­ing par­ties in Flan­ders, the N‑VA and he CD&V do not oppose adhe­sion of Turkey as such, although the for­mer has tak­en a more gen­er­al stand on the need to stop EU enlarge­ment in gen­er­al. Final­ly, only the main far-right par­ties (Lijst Dedeck­er, Vlaams Belang and Par­ti Pop­u­laire) have open­ly dis­card­ed the enlarge­ment to Turkey on grounds of iden­ti­ty, or in oth­er words of the often-men­tioned lack of Euro­pean voca­tion of the Ana­to­lian penin­su­la. Their strong­hold on the issue might also be one fac­tor hav­ing impact­ed the cur­rent­ly rather dis­crete stand of oth­er par­ties and actors.

3. Power relations in the EU

German bandwagoning?

As a first note, it should be high­light­ed that Ger­many remains one of the main eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal part­ners of Bel­gium. In 2012, Ger­many was the uncon­test­ed first des­ti­na­tion of Bel­gian exports world­wide, close­ly fol­lowed by France and the Nether­lands. Bel­gium’s exports to Ger­many amount­ed to EUR 60.5 bil­lion that year. At the same time, Ger­many ranked sec­ond in terms of sup­ply to Bel­gium. The country’s share in Belgium’s total imports of goods amount­ed to 14.1 per­cent (Agence pour le com­merce belge). Although Belgium’s clos­est polit­i­cal part­ners remain the oth­er two Benelux coun­tries, in par­tic­u­lar because a more bal­anced rela­tion­ship is pos­si­ble, Ger­many as EC found­ing mem­ber also con­sti­tutes one of its priv­i­leged allies. The prox­im­i­ty of the two coun­tries’ polit­i­cal sys­tems is often cit­ed, all the more in a con­text of uncer­tain­ty sur­round­ing the nature and future of the EU, and in par­tic­u­lar the notion of “fed­er­al­ism”. In 2014, com­mem­o­ra­tions of the hun­dredth anniver­sary of WWI have drawn con­sid­er­able media and pub­lic atten­tion to the Bel­go-Ger­man rela­tions. In addi­tion, impor­tant cul­tur­al links per­sist in par­tic­u­lar through the Ger­man-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ty in Belgium’s East­ern can­tons (and giv­en the fact that Ger­man is one of the country’s three offi­cial lan­guages).

The posi­tion of Bel­gium on Germany’s role has large­ly been devel­oped in response to eco­nom­ic and finan­cial mea­sures that have been often attrib­uted to and embed­ded by the lat­ter. On the one hand, as part of ‘North­ern Euro­zone’, Bel­gium has occa­sion­al­ly been asso­ci­at­ed with mea­sures imposed upon ‘South­ern mem­bers’. On the oth­er hand, aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures — and in par­tic­u­lar those impos­ing stricter con­di­tions on those mem­ber states receiv­ing finan­cial assis­tance — have led to protests among left-wing par­ties and move­ments with­in Bel­gium, most bla­tant­ly in the peri­od sur­round­ing debates on the so-called Fis­cal Com­pact or Treaty on Sta­bil­i­ty, Coor­di­na­tion and Gov­er­nance in the Eco­nom­ic and Mon­e­tary Union (TSCG).

Along the same line, pres­sures have fur­ther come from the Social­ist Par­ty (PS) which has demand­ed adjust­ments to what it con­sid­ers as aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures put for­ward by Merkel’s Ger­many. Bel­gian Social­ist Prime Min­is­ter Elio Di Rupo has notably called on the Ger­man Chan­cel­lor not to inter­fere in the eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy of the coun­try, insist­ing that each mem­ber state should decide on how to reach the sta­bil­i­ty objec­tives that have been set in com­mon. While Berlin often denounced the Bel­gian sys­tem of income index­a­tion and oth­er social ben­e­fits, Prime Min­is­ter Di Rupo sees it as a ‘social tra­di­tion’ of the coun­try, which should not be ques­tioned as such. In his view, Europe does not need to take inspi­ra­tion from a sin­gle social mod­el such as the Ger­man one, but rather devel­op its own Euro­pean mod­el backed-up by the then 27 mem­ber states.

“A Belgian always pays his debts”

In addi­tion to above-men­tioned posi­tions, which large­ly revolve around the aus­ter­i­ty debate and the role of Ger­many there­in, the posi­tion of indi­vid­ual Bel­gian par­ties and actors deserve fur­ther atten­tion. As a first note, it should be under­lined that debt reduc­tion has con­sti­tut­ed one of the top-pri­or­i­ties of the Bel­gian gov­ern­ment over the past two decades. That being said, crit­i­cisms of indi­vid­ual actors towards the EU have tend­ed to put ‘aus­ter­i­ty’ mea­sures at the cen­tre of their griev­ance. This holds in par­tic­u­lar for Paul Mag­nette, who, as pres­i­dent of the Par­ti Social­iste (PS), has proved quite vehe­ment against aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, an endeav­our large­ly backed up by the PS’s Flem­ish ‘sis­ter par­ty’ — the Social­is­tis­che Par­tij Anders (sp.a). In the con­text of an increased salien­cy of EU issues, includ­ing eco­nom­ic issues for pub­lic opin­ion, polit­i­cal par­ties seem to have devot­ed increased atten­tion to the EU poli­cies to com­bat the cri­sis. Inter­est­ing­ly, these opin­ions diverge sub­stan­tial­ly, with eco­nom­i­cal­ly right-wing par­ties gen­er­al­ly sup­port­ing the mon­e­tarist aus­ter­i­ty poli­cies, and by con­trast, left-wing par­ties being vehe­ment­ly opposed to them. This has some­times been seen as a main break­ing point in the pro-Euro­pean con­sen­sus among Bel­gian par­ties as well as a major start­ing point from which par­ties have more sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly elab­o­rat­ed posi­tions on EU issues. In short, the aus­ter­i­ty v. growth debate has large­ly impact­ed par­ty com­pe­ti­tion in Bel­gium, and could mark the end of a pro-Euro­pean con­sen­sus based main­ly on indif­fer­ence.

The process of rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Treaty on Sta­bil­i­ty, Coor­di­na­tion and Gov­er­nance in the Eco­nom­ic and Mon­e­tary Union (TSCG) con­sti­tutes a more con­crete and rev­e­la­to­ry case in the debate. It has been the object of intense nego­ti­a­tions and large­ly revealed oppos­ing visions in Bel­gium. The rat­i­fi­ca­tion process has been par­tic­u­lar­ly slow, which is at least part­ly attrib­ut­able to the com­plex­i­ty of the Bel­gian polit­i­cal sys­tem (rat­i­fi­ca­tion involves the var­i­ous state assem­blies, includ­ing both hous­es at the fed­er­al lev­el, the region­al par­lia­ments in Wal­lo­nia and Brus­sels, the Flem­ish par­lia­ment, and the par­lia­ments of the French-speak­ing and Ger­man-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties). In fact, the treaty auto­mat­i­cal­ly entered into force fol­low­ing a major­i­ty of Euro­zone mem­ber states’ rat­i­fi­ca­tion, before the Bel­gian rat­i­fi­ca­tion could be set­tled. Along with far-right par­ties, although on very dif­fer­ent grounds, the Bel­gian Greens have arguably raised the most crit­i­cisms against the Treaty out of fear that it could trig­ger even more anti-social and aus­ter­i­ty poli­cies. This appeared as par­tic­u­lar­ly prob­lem­at­ic at the time since the French-speak­ing green par­ty ECOLO was also, as mem­ber of coali­tions at the region­al lev­el, tak­ing part in exec­u­tives which had to adhere to the fis­cal sta­bil­i­ty treaty. In the end, both green par­ties — ECOLO and Groen! — vot­ed against the rat­i­fi­ca­tion in the fed­er­al low­er Cham­ber, while ECOLO did sup­port it in the region­al Par­lia­ment in Wal­lo­nia. The debate has accord­ing­ly been post­poned until con­crete appli­ca­tions of the TSCG — includ­ing leg­isla­tive trans­po­si­tions — pave the way for intense dis­cus­sions on even­tu­al lim­i­ta­tions.

‘L’Europe à la carte?’ Not on the Belgian menu

Polit­i­cal actors have exten­sive­ly respond­ed to the UK exit pos­si­bil­i­ty as for­mu­lat­ed by British Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron. Didi­er Reyn­ders, the lib­er­al Bel­gian For­eign Min­is­ter, has reject­ed any pos­si­bil­i­ty of à la carte Europe, which appears in line with most oth­er EU gov­ern­ments. At the same time, he acknowl­edged rel­e­vant points under­lined by the UK gov­ern­ment includ­ing the issue of the EU’s demo­c­ra­t­ic legit­i­ma­cy. For­mer Bel­gian Prime Min­is­ter and head of the lib­er­al group in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt denounced the risks posed to the sin­gle mar­ket by even­tu­al rene­go­ti­a­tions for the con­ve­nience of only one mem­ber, or, more gen­er­al­ly, uni­lat­er­al claims to treaty adjust­ment.

Eco­nom­ic actors, first and fore­most the Fédéra­tion des entre­pris­es de Bel­gique (FEB, the fed­er­a­tion of Bel­gian com­pa­nies), have quick­ly warned against such exit as a threat to Bel­gian trade. The share of the coun­try in Belgium’s total exports of goods cur­rent­ly amounts to 6.5 per­cent. They do not only fear that if the UK leaves the EU, rules and norms enact­ed might neg­a­tive­ly affect exchanges, but also indi­rect­ly that oth­er coun­tries might fol­low in ask­ing for spe­cial treat­ment, lead­ing in fine to a frac­tion­ing of the sin­gle mar­ket. The same goes for the main Bel­gian employ­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion, which has voiced the wish to sup­port the UK gov­ern­ment in pos­si­ble EU reform nego­ti­a­tions so that the lat­ter would obtain the best pos­si­ble deal and refrain from an exit.

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This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2014. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2014. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the EU-28 Watch web­site: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 10 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained there­in.