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).