Government en affaires courantes to prepare the council presidency

Government’s fall and new federal elections

The first semes­ter of 2010 was almost com­plete­ly ded­i­cat­ed to the Bel­gian polit­i­cal cri­sis that occurred after the fail­ure of the roy­al mis­sion of for­mer Prime Min­is­ter, Jean-Luc Dehaene. Dehaene was appoint­ed by the King in Novem­ber 2009 with the objec­tive of resolv­ing a ques­tion, on which Flem­ish and French-speak­ing par­ties were opposed, but did not man­age to reach an agree­ment with both lin­guis­tic com­mu­ni­ties. The fed­er­al cab­i­net took over this so-called Brus­sels-Halle-Vil­vo­orde issue 11The Brus­sels-Halle-Vil­vo­orde issue deals with the def­i­n­i­tion bor­ders of an elec­toral dis­trict around Brus­sels. This issue that is most­ly sym­bol­ic strong­ly divides Flem­ish- and French-speak­ing par­ties, as the for­mer want the split of the dis­trict in a unilin­gual Flem­ish dis­trict (Halle-Vil­vo­orde) and a bilin­gual one (Brus­sels) while the lat­ter pre­fer the sta­tus quo, i.e., a com­mon dis­trict for both Brus­sels and periph­er­al Flem­ish cities. but, as no advance­ment could be made in the nego­ti­a­tions, the Flem­ish lib­er­al par­ty Open VLD decid­ed to leave the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The Prime Min­is­ter had no oth­er option than to present the res­ig­na­tion of the entire cab­i­net to the King. As the major­i­ty of the par­ties agreed on call­ing for new elec­tions, both fed­er­al cham­bers were dis­solved and the Bel­gian cit­i­zens will vote on 13 June 2010, less than three weeks before the start of the Bel­gian Pres­i­den­cy of the EU. This res­ig­na­tion and the ear­ly dis­so­lu­tion of the cham­bers have, among oth­ers, prac­ti­cal con­se­quences on the trans­po­si­tion of the EU direc­tives. The State Sec­re­tary for Euro­pean Affairs, Olivi­er Chas­tel, and the Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs, Steven Vanackere, urged for a con­tin­ued trans­po­si­tion of the direc­tives even if the gov­ern­ment is in affaires courantes, i.e., not allowed to take any pol­i­cy ini­tia­tive indi­vid­u­al­ly or col­lec­tive­ly, and the fed­er­al par­lia­ment has been dis­solved. Yet, no less than 36 direc­tives (among which 26 belong­ing direct­ly to the fed­er­al lev­el) have to be trans­posed before Novem­ber 2010.22Fed­er­al Coun­cil of Min­is­ters, press release, 19 May 2010.

Belgian Presidency of the EU: priorities and challenges

The sys­tem of rotat­ing pres­i­den­cies attrib­ut­es to Bel­gium the lead­er­ship of the EU between 1 July and 31 Decem­ber 2010. Even if the details of the Pres­i­den­cy are not yet known, the pro­gramme will be main­ly based on the one adopt­ed by the “trio pres­i­den­cy” (Spain, Bel­gium and Hun­gary).33Coun­cil of the Euro­pean Union: Pro­jet de pro­gramme de dix-huit mois du Con­seil, doc. 16771/09, 19 Novem­ber 2009. In addi­tion to the for­mal and infor­mal polit­i­cal meet­ings, about 70 cul­tur­al and 150 non-cul­tur­al projects will be organ­ised by the civ­il soci­ety, asso­ci­a­tions, etc. An agree­ment has been reached between the fed­er­al, region­al and com­mu­ni­ty cab­i­nets regard­ing the bud­get of this Pres­i­den­cy: the fed­er­al lev­el will ded­i­cate 74 mil­lion Euros, while con­tri­bu­tions of 14.5 mil­lions, 8 mil­lion and 6 mil­lion will be made by respec­tive­ly the Flem­ish, the Wal­loon (joint­ly with the French-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ty) and the Brus­sels region.44Meet­ing between the fed­er­al, region­al and com­mu­ni­ty cab­i­nets on the Bel­gian Pres­i­den­cy of the EU, press release, 26 March 2010. Key moments of the Pres­i­den­cy are already iden­ti­fied, among which are the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly on the Mil­len­ni­um Devel­op­ment Goals, the third EU-Africa Sum­mit and the revi­sion of the Coto­nou Agree­ment between the EU and ACP coun­tries. The main themes of the Pres­i­den­cy will be the imple­men­ta­tion of the Lis­bon Treaty; the launch of the post-Lis­bon Strat­e­gy (main­ly regard­ing the chal­lenges of the eco­nom­ic and finan­cial cri­sis and of glob­al­i­sa­tion); the man­age­ment of the neg­a­tive impact of glob­al­i­sa­tion on social affairs; the resump­tion of inter­na­tion­al nego­ti­a­tions on cli­mate and ener­gy; the imple­men­ta­tion of the Stock­holm Pro­gramme in the field of jus­tice, asy­lum and migra­tion; and the pur­su­ing of the nego­ti­a­tions relat­ed to the enlarge­ment of the Union. The final pro­gramme of the Pres­i­den­cy is to be approved on the occa­sion of a con­cil­i­a­tion meet­ing group­ing the fed­er­al, region­al and com­mu­ni­ty cab­i­nets on 16 June 2010 (a first meet­ing occurred on 19 May 2010). The offi­cial launch of the Pres­i­den­cy will take place on 2 July 2010 and the pro­gramme will be pre­sent­ed by the Prime Min­is­ter in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment on 7 July 2010.

Usu­al­ly, thanks to the seri­ous, con­sci­en­tious and pro-Euro­pean rep­u­ta­tion of Bel­gium, Bel­gian Pres­i­den­cies are wide­ly antic­i­pat­ed. There is no con­cern glob­al­ly about the state of prepa­ra­tion of Bel­gium for its Pres­i­den­cy 55Maroun Laba­ki: Europe. Pas d’effet dra­ma­tique en vue, Le Soir, 23 April 2010. and, accord­ing to the two min­is­ters in charge (the Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs, Steven Vanackere, and the State Sec­re­tary for Euro­pean Affairs, Olivi­er Chas­tel), the prepa­ra­tion is almost over.66Olivi­er le Bussy: L’UE n’attendra pas la Bel­gique, La Libre Bel­gique, 28 April 2010; Meet­ing of Steven Vanackere and Olivi­er Chas­tel with a del­e­ga­tion of the AFCO (Com­mit­tee on Con­sti­tu­tion­al Affairs) of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, press release, 11 May 2010. High expec­ta­tions regard­ing the qual­i­ty of the Bel­gian Pres­i­den­cy can also be noticed in var­i­ous coun­tries, espe­cial­ly the UK, in par­tic­u­lar for the imple­men­ta­tion of the Lis­bon Treaty and the sup­pos­ed­ly pos­i­tive rela­tions of Bel­gium with Her­man Van Rompuy and Cather­ine Ash­ton.77De Mor­gen: Brit­ten verwacht­en veel van Bel­gië als EU-voorzit­ter­schap, 3 March 2010. But the fall of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment ques­tions the capac­i­ty of Bel­gium to exert a ful­ly-fledged pres­i­den­cy as the resign­ing cab­i­net and the min­is­ters are in affaires courantes. For the oppo­si­tion par­ties (main­ly the Greens, but also the Pop­ulists, the List DeDeck­er (LDD) and the extreme right), this cab­i­net prob­lem occurs at the wrong moment, as the EU needs strong lead­er­ship in order to face the finan­cial cri­sis and bud­get prob­lems. But even Olivi­er Chas­tel stress­es the fact that this sit­u­a­tion pos­es a prob­lem of legit­i­ma­cy, cred­i­bil­i­ty and capac­i­ty for the government’s abil­i­ty to weigh in on the debate.88Olivi­er le Bussy: L’UE n’attendra pas la Bel­gique, La Libre Bel­gique, 28 April 2010. Many actors, includ­ing mem­bers of the fed­er­al cab­i­net, fear that Bel­gium could fol­low the Czech sce­nario of 2009, where inter­nal polit­i­cal prob­lems and a cabinet’s fall some­how paral­ysed the EU pres­i­den­cy.99La Dernière Heure: Prési­dence belge de l’UE: Javaux craint un scé­nario à la Tchèque, 15 March 2010; Maroun Laba­ki: Europe. Pas d’effet dra­ma­tique en vue Le Soir, 23 April 2010. But glob­al­ly, there is more con­cern about the image and pres­tige of Bel­gium than about the EU, as Olivi­er Chas­tel, but also Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment Patrick Mori­au, con­sid­ered that the Pres­i­den­cy was high­ly expect­ed to restore a pos­i­tive image of Bel­gium after the recent years char­ac­terised by con­tin­u­ous polit­i­cal crises and a divide between lin­guis­tic com­mu­ni­ties.1010Par­lia­men­tary dis­cus­sion on the 2010 Fed­er­al state bud­get, doc. 52 2222/05, 19 Decem­ber 2009.

But, con­trary to for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Jean-Luc Dehaene, who claimed that this sit­u­a­tion is neg­a­tive and even dra­mat­ic, 1111Jeroen Verelst: Oud-pre­mier Martens: “Val van regering zou ron­duit drama­tisch zijn”, De Mor­gen, 22 April 2010. the main Bel­gian polit­i­cal actors are not alarmed. Sev­er­al rea­sons are men­tioned, among which the fact that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment does not have an impor­tant role to play in the Pres­i­den­cy. First, there is now a Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Coun­cil (Her­man Van Rompuy) and a High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Union for For­eign Affairs and Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy (Cather­ine Ash­ton) that take over some of the tasks and respon­si­bil­i­ties usu­al­ly assigned to the rotat­ing pres­i­den­cy, main­ly the major eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal issues as well as for­eign pol­i­cy. But the “day-to-day” busi­ness remains in the hands of Bel­gium, i.e., to pre­pare and pre­side over min­is­te­r­i­al coun­cils and obtain com­pro­mis­es. Sec­ond, the prepa­ra­tion work is almost over, as this Pres­i­den­cy was already one of the pri­or­i­ties of the fed­er­al cab­i­net since its start in 2007. The Bel­gian min­is­ters will be assist­ed by a well-organ­ised diplo­mat­ic ser­vice and civ­il ser­vants who are used to the exer­cise. Third, the pro­gramme of the Pres­i­den­cy is bound to the one adopt­ed by the “trio pres­i­den­cy” (Spain, Bel­gium and Hun­gary) for the peri­od Jan­u­ary 2010 — June 2011. There is lit­tle room for manoeu­vre for Bel­gium in this regard, espe­cial­ly because there has nev­er been a huge debate between polit­i­cal par­ties on how the Pres­i­den­cy will be organ­ised and on which pri­or­i­ties, as there usu­al­ly exists a con­sen­sus on Euro­pean affairs in Bel­gium. Fourth, the cri­sis does not affect (unless a major cab­i­net reshuf­fle at dif­fer­ent lev­els occurs) the work of the regions and com­mu­ni­ties. Since the coop­er­a­tion agree­ment of 1994, Bel­gian regions and com­mu­ni­ties may lead and pre­pare meet­ings of the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters. The Wal­loon region will be in charge of the meet­ings on indus­try, com­pe­ti­tion and region­al poli­cies, the French-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ty will deal with cul­ture and audio­vi­su­al, the Brus­sels region with research and devel­op­ment, while the Flem­ish region will be respon­si­ble of fish­ery, edu­ca­tion, youth pol­i­cy, sport and envi­ron­ment. The oth­er pol­i­cy domains remain in the hands of the fed­er­al min­is­ters. Fifth, and regard­ing the com­par­i­son with the Czech Repub­lic in 2009, Italy in 1996 and Den­mark in 1993, Chris­t­ian Franck asserts that, in Bel­gian polit­i­cal his­to­ry, the Pres­i­den­cy gen­er­ates the com­ple­tion of agree­ments between the Flem­ish and French-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ty.1212Chris­t­ian Franck: Quel impact sur la prési­dence belge de l’UE?, La Libre Bel­gique, 28 April 2010. Some of the most impor­tant steps lead­ing to state reforms and trans­for­ma­tions occurred around pres­i­den­cies. In this regard, the cur­rent Pres­i­den­cy should be seen as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for Bel­gium rather than a threat. Final­ly, as the six-month pres­i­den­cy includes two months of “hol­i­days”, dur­ing which few pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives will be tak­en, Bel­gium should man­age only four months of pres­i­den­cy, and many actors pre­dict that a ful­ly-fledged fed­er­al cab­i­net will be in place by Sep­tem­ber 2010.1313Pas­cal Mar­tin: L’Europe ne s’inquiète pas, Le Soir, 28 April 2010.

    Footnotes

  • 1The Brus­sels-Halle-Vil­vo­orde issue deals with the def­i­n­i­tion bor­ders of an elec­toral dis­trict around Brus­sels. This issue that is most­ly sym­bol­ic strong­ly divides Flem­ish- and French-speak­ing par­ties, as the for­mer want the split of the dis­trict in a unilin­gual Flem­ish dis­trict (Halle-Vil­vo­orde) and a bilin­gual one (Brus­sels) while the lat­ter pre­fer the sta­tus quo, i.e., a com­mon dis­trict for both Brus­sels and periph­er­al Flem­ish cities.
  • 2Fed­er­al Coun­cil of Min­is­ters, press release, 19 May 2010.
  • 3Coun­cil of the Euro­pean Union: Pro­jet de pro­gramme de dix-huit mois du Con­seil, doc. 16771/09, 19 Novem­ber 2009.
  • 4Meet­ing between the fed­er­al, region­al and com­mu­ni­ty cab­i­nets on the Bel­gian Pres­i­den­cy of the EU, press release, 26 March 2010.
  • 5Maroun Laba­ki: Europe. Pas d’effet dra­ma­tique en vue, Le Soir, 23 April 2010.
  • 6Olivi­er le Bussy: L’UE n’attendra pas la Bel­gique, La Libre Bel­gique, 28 April 2010; Meet­ing of Steven Vanackere and Olivi­er Chas­tel with a del­e­ga­tion of the AFCO (Com­mit­tee on Con­sti­tu­tion­al Affairs) of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, press release, 11 May 2010.
  • 7De Mor­gen: Brit­ten verwacht­en veel van Bel­gië als EU-voorzit­ter­schap, 3 March 2010.
  • 8Olivi­er le Bussy: L’UE n’attendra pas la Bel­gique, La Libre Bel­gique, 28 April 2010.
  • 9La Dernière Heure: Prési­dence belge de l’UE: Javaux craint un scé­nario à la Tchèque, 15 March 2010; Maroun Laba­ki: Europe. Pas d’effet dra­ma­tique en vue Le Soir, 23 April 2010.
  • 10Par­lia­men­tary dis­cus­sion on the 2010 Fed­er­al state bud­get, doc. 52 2222/05, 19 Decem­ber 2009.
  • 11Jeroen Verelst: Oud-pre­mier Martens: “Val van regering zou ron­duit drama­tisch zijn”, De Mor­gen, 22 April 2010.
  • 12Chris­t­ian Franck: Quel impact sur la prési­dence belge de l’UE?, La Libre Bel­gique, 28 April 2010.
  • 13Pas­cal Mar­tin: L’Europe ne s’inquiète pas, Le Soir, 28 April 2010.

The reports focus on a report­ing peri­od from Decem­ber 2009 until May 2010. This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March and April 2010. Most of the 31 reports were deliv­ered in May 2010.

The EU-27 Watch No. 9 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.