Hope for an early second Irish referendum but no major concern about the future of the EU

1. How does the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’ look like?

 

The Irish ‘No’ cre­at­ed of course some con­cerns about the inte­gra­tion process and the future of the Euro­pean Union (EU).[1] But Bel­gian politi­cians seemed to take a very prag­mat­ic approach and were rather con­fi­dent that a solu­tion would be found for both Ire­land and the EU. Glob­al­ly speak­ing, press cov­er­age did not reflect any major con­cern about the Euro­pean inte­gra­tion process itself. It seems that the EU remains large­ly tak­en for grant­ed by pub­lic opin­ion and politi­cians in Bel­gium. There were lit­tle doubts the cri­sis would end although there were some debates about the length of the cur­rent situation.

The Irish ‘No’

The Bel­gian polit­i­cal elite, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Prime Min­is­ter Yves Leterme, claimed to be will­ing to be patient and tol­er­ant as they under­stood the trou­bles faced by the Irish gov­ern­ment. How­ev­er, although the Prime Min­is­ter not­ed that Ire­land needs time to solve its prob­lems, the only solu­tion envis­aged by Bel­gian politi­cians and media was the organ­i­sa­tion of a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum that should take place quick­ly. Indeed, the only solu­tion put for­ward in Bel­gium was the organ­i­sa­tion of a new ref­er­en­dum on the Lis­bon Treaty with a text that would take into account the so-called “four Irish prob­lems”, i.e. abor­tion, neu­tral­i­ty, fis­cal auton­o­my and the nation­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion with­in the Euro­pean Commission.[2] More­over, it was high­ly expect­ed that this ref­er­en­dum, this time, would be positive[3] and would take place before the two major dead­lines of 2009: the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions and the for­ma­tion of a new Com­mis­sion in autumn.[4]

Reform of the Commission

At the same time, the com­pro­mise that emerged after the Euro­pean Coun­cil con­cern­ing the com­po­si­tion of the Com­mis­sion is a very sen­si­tive issue for the Benelux coun­tries. With the orig­i­nal Lis­bon Treaty, the Commission’s reform was planned to increase its supra­na­tion­al char­ac­ter by dimin­ish­ing the num­ber of Com­mis­sion­ers. The cur­rent com­pro­mise is seen as a step back as it still guar­an­tees the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of each mem­ber state with­in the Com­mis­sion (one Com­mis­sion­er per mem­ber state). The Bel­gian Prime Min­is­ter Leterme, thus wish­es that this com­pro­mise will be tem­po­rary. Although the pri­or­i­ty of the Bel­gian gov­ern­ment is the treaty rat­i­fi­ca­tion, the Prime Min­is­ter stat­ed that it should not hap­pen at the expense of the treaty’s essen­tial ele­ments or the effi­cien­cy of the Euro­pean Commission.[5] Media cov­er­age also insist­ed on the neces­si­ty for Ire­land to organ­ise a sec­ond referendum.[6]

European elections

Oth­er issues relat­ed to the EU’s future were not much dis­cussed dur­ing the semester.[7] Euro­pean elec­tions gained atten­tion when the polit­i­cal par­ties pub­lished their elec­toral lists for these elec­tions in Jan­u­ary 2009.[8] This lack of atten­tion can be explained by the fact that the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment and region­al elec­tions are held the same day and the lat­ter are per­ceived as much more impor­tant in terms of stakes by the pop­u­la­tion. Indeed, although par­tic­i­pa­tion rates are gen­er­al­ly high in Belgium,[9] it is main­ly because vote is com­pul­so­ry and not because Bel­gians are inter­est­ed in EU affairs or the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions. This was con­firmed by the “Euro­barom­e­ter Cit­i­zens and the 2009 Euro­pean elec­tions, results for Bel­gium” that showed that 53 per­cent of the Bel­gian respon­dents are not inter­est­ed in these elections.[10]

In con­clu­sion, Bel­gians were not pre­oc­cu­pied with EU affairs dur­ing the sec­ond semes­ter of 2008. In this regard, the major con­cern was the poten­tial threat to the supra­na­tion­al char­ac­ter of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion although the pri­or­i­ty of Bel­gian politi­cians was still to find a solu­tion after the Irish ‘No’.

2. Transatlantic relations renewed after President Bush : top priorities

 

More about the personality of Obama than about political priorities

The pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca were exten­sive­ly cov­ered by the Bel­gian press, how­ev­er, it must be not­ed that the focus was on Obama’s per­son­al­i­ty, career and the USA elec­toral sys­tem and not on the impact for transat­lantic relations.[11] Nev­er­the­less, if we have to define the three main ele­ments rel­e­vant for the EU-US rela­tion­ship, it would be NATO, the place of Europe in the world after the inau­gu­ra­tion and final­ly, cli­mate change and human rights.

NATO

First­ly, NATO seems to be an impor­tant issue for a poten­tial revi­tal­i­sa­tion of the EU-US rela­tion­ship. Indeed, “from the Amer­i­can per­spec­tive the fore­most issue in transat­lantic rela­tions is now NATO’s mis­sion in Afghanistan. Barack Oba­ma has made it very clear that the war in Afghanistan is his top pri­or­i­ty. The Unit­ed States is expect­ed to sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase their mil­i­tary pres­ence in Afghanistan and will be expect­ing a sig­nif­i­cant com­mit­ment from their allies.”[12] How­ev­er, Bel­gian politi­cians stressed the dif­fer­ences between the EU’s and the USA’s vision of NATO. Accord­ing to them, NATO is seen by the Euro­peans as a region­al defense organ­i­sa­tion where­as the Amer­i­cans see it as a glob­al polit­i­cal actor. They also feared that the new USA admin­is­tra­tion would ask the EU to inter­vene more in inter­na­tion­al affairs.[13]

The place of Europe

Indeed, the reac­tions and expec­ta­tions are diverse con­cern­ing the EU’s involve­ment in inter­na­tion­al affairs after the inau­gu­ra­tion of Barack Oba­ma. On the one hand, some feared that the EU would be left aside. Dur­ing the long tran­si­tion peri­od between Bush and Oba­ma, the EU (through its Council’s Pres­i­dent Nico­las Sarkozy) could be very involved in inter­na­tion­al affairs,[14]while for some com­men­ta­tors, it would not be pos­si­ble once Oba­ma is in office. On the oth­er hand, oth­ers were more opti­mistic about the EU-USA rela­tion­ship, hop­ing the EU will still have a say in world affairs, espe­cial­ly with the good rela­tions between the USA and the Czech Repub­lic (the new EU-Presidency).[15] A high lev­el of good­will from Oba­ma in Europe was also high­light­ed by Katya Long although she also stressed that “Euro­peans should not expect a sub­stan­tive break from the last years of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion. Indeed, the uni­lat­er­al­ist and alien­at­ing atti­tude of the first years of George Bush’s pres­i­den­cy has since been replaced with a more tra­di­tion­al real­ist approach to for­eign pol­i­cy. Although Barack Oba­ma is a lib­er­al, he is also a prag­ma­tist and if it is undoubt­ful that he will re-engage with the world with strong diplo­ma­cy he will remain the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, com­mit­ted to the inter­ests of his country.”[16]

Climate change and human rights

Final­ly, “[t]here are two sub­jects how­ev­er where Barack Obama’s atti­tude will be marked­ly dif­fer­ent from that of his pre­de­ces­sor: cli­mate change and human rights. On both these issues it is clear that an Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion will engage with the Euro­peans. One might expect strong Amer­i­can lead­er­ship on cli­mate change and the clos­ing of Guan­tanamo as well as the end of the prac­tise of tor­ture in inter­ro­ga­tions will allow Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans to work more close­ly on issues of counter-ter­ror­ism. Per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant change will be on the lev­el of dis­course: where George Bush always empha­sized America’s capac­i­ty to do things on her own, Barack Oba­ma repeat­ed­ly says that the issues that are faced (ter­ror­ism, eco­nom­ic cri­sis, cli­mate change) are glob­al and need an inter­na­tion­al response”.[17]

3. Financial crisis and challenges of global governance: the EU response

 

Criticising the lack of harmony in the European reaction

Dur­ing the first days after the out­break of the finan­cial cri­sis, var­i­ous Bel­gian polit­i­cal actors crit­i­cized the indi­vid­ual man­age­ment of the events and the lack of har­mo­ny in the Euro­pean reac­tion. The Bel­gian gov­ern­ment expressed its dis­sat­is­fac­tion on this top­ic to the French Pres­i­dent dur­ing the Eurogroup meet­ing on 12 Octo­ber 2008. In addi­tion, the Bel­gian Prime Min­is­ter denounced the lack of an answer from the EU at the begin­ning of the cri­sis, with the excep­tion of the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank, while the par­lia­men­tary oppo­si­tion par­tic­u­lar­ly stressed the absence of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and of its President.[18]

The cri­sis revealed the need for a struc­tur­al man­age­ment of the events of all mem­ber states. There­fore, the Bel­gian gov­ern­ment, in a very active but dis­crete way,[19] pro­posed the cre­ation of a Euro­pean har­monised organ in charge of sup­port­ing the pre­ven­tive con­trol, the grant­i­ng of war­ranties, and the organ­i­sa­tion of finan­cial facil­i­ties in cas­es of insolv­abil­i­ty, illiq­uid­i­ty and bank­rupt­cy. Anoth­er pro­pos­al was the cre­ation of a Euro­pean fund aim­ing at solv­ing the liq­uid­i­ty prob­lems for a cer­tain cat­e­go­ry of banks.[20] Even­tu­al­ly, oth­er mem­ber states should be inspired by the way the Bel­gian gov­ern­ment dealt with the finan­cial cri­sis said Georges Dalle­magne (CDH[21]), a MP belong­ing to the majority.[22] Dur­ing the 15 and16 Octo­ber sum­mit, Bel­gium suc­cess­ful­ly pro­posed a war­ran­ty of the struc­ture of the cap­i­tal of bank insti­tu­tions and a state war­ran­ty for inter­bank trans­ac­tions, enlarged to 100,000 Euros in Belgium.

Oth­er sug­ges­tions have been made by dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal actors regard­ing the finan­cial envi­ron­ment. First of all, sev­er­al MPs from both the major­i­ty and the oppo­si­tion stressed the need for a reform of the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund and oth­er finan­cial insti­tu­tions as they appar­ent­ly did not pro­vide use­ful solu­tions to the crisis.[23] The main prob­lem with such reforms is that Bel­gium alone can do lit­tle and a con­sen­sus would be required among Euro­pean coun­tries to reform these insti­tu­tions. The sup­pres­sion of the fis­cal off-shores has also been dis­cussed in the fed­er­al parliament,[24] as well as the cre­ation of a Euro­pean bank and finance Com­mis­sion. This lat­ter pro­pos­al can be use­ful for reg­u­la­tion and glob­al ini­tia­tives besides the exist­ing Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank, but its main dis­ad­van­tage would be its rigid­i­ty. As by def­i­n­i­tion, a finan­cial cri­sis requires a fast reac­tion, this insti­tu­tion would be inad­e­quate in rapid­ly deal­ing with the short term events.

 

 

 

[1] See Knack, 6 Novem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[2] See Le Soir, 11 Decem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009); De Stan­daard, 11 Decem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.standaard.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009); De Mor­gen, 09 Decem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.demorgen.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[3] See Knack, 9 July 2008, 6 Novem­ber 2008, 17 Novem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009); Le Vif l’Express, 26 Novem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009); Sev­er­al polls pre­sent­ed by the media showed that Irish peo­ple were in favour of the Lis­bon Treaty.
[4] See Le Soir, 11 Decem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009); Le Con­seil européen de Brux­elles. 15 et 16 Octo­ber 2008, Report realised for the Fed­er­al Advice Com­mit­tee in charge of Euro­pean affairs, 27 Novem­ber 2008, Doc­u­ment 1616/001 (Cham­ber) and 4–0985/1 (Sen­ate).
[5] See Le Soir, 11 Decem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009); Knack, 10 Decem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009); De Stan­daard, 11December 2008, avail­able at: www.standeard.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[6] See Knack, 9 July 2008, 6 Novem­ber 2008, 21 Novem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[7] The only fact that was noticed was that Bel­gium will lose two seats in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment after the 2009 elec­tion and there was a debate about which Bel­gian com­mu­ni­ty should lose a seat. It was final­ly decid­ed that both French-speak­ing and Dutch-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties would lose a seat, see Knack, 27 Novem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[8] See Knack, 22 Jan­u­ary 2009, avail­able at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[9] Only 6 per­cent of the peo­ple declared they would not vote for the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions, Spe­cial Eurobarometer299: Cit­i­zens and the 2009 Euro­pean elec­tions. Results for Bel­gium, avail­able at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_299_be_en.pdf (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[10] Ibid.
[11] See Le Vif l’Express, 5 Novem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009); Le Soir, 22 Novem­ber 2008, 17 Decem­ber 2008, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[12] Inter­view with Katya Long, FNRS researcher at the Uni­ver­sité libre de Brux­elles, spe­cial­ist in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, 12 Jan­u­ary 2009.
[13] Audi­tion of Javier Solana in the Com­mit­tee for Exter­nal Rela­tions and Defense and the Fed­er­al Advice Com­mit­tee in charge of Euro­pean Affairs, Report realised for the Fed­er­al Advice Com­mit­tee in charge of Euro­pean Affairs, 25 Novem­ber 2008, Report CRIV 52 COM 378 (Cham­ber), for more details on Bel­gium and NATO, see point III of this report.
[14] See Le Vif l’Express, 06 Jan­u­ary 2009, avail­able at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[15] Face à l’info, La pre­mière (radio sta­tion), 06 Jan­u­ary 2009, avail­able at: http://old.rtbf.be/rtbf_2000/bin/view_something.cgi?id=0160995_sac&menu=default&pub=RTBF.PREM%2fPREM.FR.la_taille.HOME (last access: 12 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[16] Inter­view with Katya Long, FNRS researcher at the Uni­ver­sité libre de Brux­elles, spe­cial­ist in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, 12 Jan­u­ary 2009.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Le Con­seil européen de Brux­elles. 15 et 16 octo­bre 2008, Report made for the Advice Fed­er­al Com­mit­tee in charge of Euro­pean Issues, 27 Novem­ber 2008, Doc­u­ment 1616/001 (Cham­ber) and 4–0985/1 (Sen­ate).
[19] Leterme se félicite de l’influence belge, in: La Libre Bel­gique, 7 Novem­ber 2008.
[20] Y. Leterme réclame un fonds d’aide européen, in: La Libre Bel­gique, 25 Octo­ber 2008.
[21] Cen­tré Démoc­rate Human­iste, French-speak­ing con­ser­v­a­tive party.
[22] Le Con­seil européen de Brux­elles. 15 et 16 octo­bre 2008, Report made for the Advice Fed­er­al Com­mit­tee in charge of Euro­pean Issues, 27 Novem­ber 2008, Doc­u­ment 1616/001 (Cham­ber) and 4–0985/1 (Sen­ate).
[23] Y. Leterme réclame un fonds d’aide européen, in. La Libre Bel­gique, 25 Octo­ber 2008.
[24] Le Con­seil européen de Brux­elles. 15 et 16 octo­bre 2008, Report made for the Advice Fed­er­al Com­mit­tee in charge of Euro­pean Issues, 27 Novem­ber 2008, Doc­u­ment 1616/001 (Cham­ber) and 4–0985/1 (Sen­ate).