Herman Van Rompuy: a threat for Belgium but an opportunity for Europe

The nom­i­na­tion of Her­man Van Rompuy had a direct impact on the Bel­gian fed­er­al gov­ern­ment: Van Rompuy was Bel­gian Prime Min­is­ter at the time of his appoint­ment. This event occurred in a polit­i­cal­ly sen­si­tive envi­ron­ment, as the country’s fed­er­al lev­el wit­nessed a recent cab­i­net insta­bil­i­ty (Van Rompuy was the third Prime Min­is­ter in less than two years), and focused on the nev­er-end­ing com­mu­ni­ty con­flict between Flem­ish- and French-speak­ing par­ties. This nom­i­na­tion opened a new peri­od of polit­i­cal uncer­tain­ty in Bel­gium with con­sul­ta­tions and nego­ti­a­tions between the King and the main par­ties. An agree­ment was reached after a few days and Yves Leterme replaced Van Rompuy at the head of gov­ern­ment on 25 Novem­ber 2009. Nonethe­less, the gov­ern­ment was dis­charged of the recur­rent Brus­sels-Halle-Vil­vo­orde (BHV) 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. and a roy­al nego­tia­tor, the for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Jean-Luc Dehaene, was appoint­ed. This BHV issue and the fail­ure of Dehaene would final­ly lead to the com­plete fall of the fed­er­al cab­i­net in April 2010.22See the Bel­gian chap­ter on cur­rent issues and dis­cours­es. As a result, the nom­i­na­tion of Van Rompuy, which man­aged to put the lin­guis­tic divide in Bel­gium on hold dur­ing his term as Prime Min­is­ter, was unan­i­mous­ly assessed as “a bad thing for Bel­gium but a good thing for Europe.”33VRT Radio, Inter­view of Mar­i­anne Thyssen (Par­ty pres­i­dent of Her­man Van Rompuy), 3 Novem­ber 2009. Van Rompuy him­self sees, in his nom­i­na­tion, recog­ni­tion for Bel­gium that, as a found­ing nation, was inces­sant­ly ded­i­cat­ed to the build­ing of Europe.44Her­man Van Rompuy: Een eer en een erken­ning voor Bel­gië, speech, De Mor­gen, 20 Novem­ber 2009. He is a respect­ed actor in the Bel­gian polit­i­cal are­na, even by his polit­i­cal oppo­nents. But the main crit­i­cism against Van Rompuy came from abroad, as in the case of the British Mem­ber of Euro­pean Par­lia­ment (MEP) Nigel Farage, who pub­licly crit­i­cised his lack of charis­ma and even his “look”.55De Mor­gen: Britse euro­hater scheldt Van Rompuy de huid vol, 24 Feb­ru­ary 2010.

Regard­ing the polit­i­cal role attrib­uted to Van Rompuy with­in the EU insti­tu­tion­al frame­work, the Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs, Steven Vanackere, declared that Bel­gium will act in per­fect con­for­mi­ty with the new real­i­ty issued by the enter­ing into force of the Lis­bon Treaty, and that the coun­try will assist Her­man Van Rompuy and Cather­ine Ash­ton as much as pos­si­ble.66Meet­ing between Steven Vanackere and Olivi­er Chas­tel with a del­e­ga­tion of the AFCO (Com­mit­tee on Con­sti­tu­tion­al Affairs) of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, 11 May 2010; Meet­ing between Olivi­er Chas­tel with the Euro­pean Affairs min­is­ters, press release, 10 May 2010. In addi­tion, the focus will be put on the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. Con­sid­er­ing its increased role since the Lis­bon Treaty, a con­tin­u­ous dia­logue will be ini­ti­at­ed, and it will become a direct inter­locu­tor of Bel­gium dur­ing its Pres­i­den­cy. Nonethe­less, the State Sec­re­tary for Euro­pean Affairs, Olivi­er Chas­tel, stress­es the fact that rotat­ing pres­i­den­cies will not be much affect­ed by the Lis­bon Treaty as, com­pared to the last Bel­gian Pres­i­den­cy in 2001, the EU now counts 27 mem­ber states, and new com­pe­tences have been attrib­uted to the Euro­pean lev­el, which com­pli­cate the deci­sion-mak­ing process.77Par­lia­men­tary dis­cus­sion on the 2010 Fed­er­al state bud­get, doc. 52 2222/05, 19 Decem­ber 2009. In the frame­work of the Bel­gian Pres­i­den­cy start­ing on 1 July 2010, the sit­u­a­tion of a com­bi­na­tion of the Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Coun­cil and the rotat­ing pres­i­den­cy belong­ing to the same coun­try (and, in some cas­es, to the same polit­i­cal par­ties, among which that of cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter, Yves Leterme) may either lead to a more effec­tive and coher­ent pres­i­den­cy or to the dom­i­na­tion of one pres­i­den­cy over the other.

Catherine Ashton: some doubts about her ability to strike a balance between her two institutional functions

The func­tion cur­rent­ly occu­pied by Cather­ine Ash­ton was strong­ly defend­ed by Bel­gium dur­ing the nego­ti­a­tions of the Lis­bon Treaty, as its pri­ma­ry pur­pose is to bring more coher­ence and vis­i­bil­i­ty to EU exter­nal action.88Report on the pri­or­i­ties of the Bel­gian EU Pres­i­den­cy, Sen­ate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, 9 Feb­ru­ary 2010, doc. n° 4–1606/3 (Sénat). How­ev­er, the first months of Cather­ine Ashton’s term were seen as rather dis­ap­point­ing in the opin­ion of Bel­gian politi­cians, as she was not yet able to make the EU an impor­tant play­er in world pol­i­tics, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the Haiti cri­sis.99Report on the pri­or­i­ties of the Bel­gian EU Pres­i­den­cy, Sen­ate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, 17 March 2010, doc. n° 4–1606/6 (Sénat).

Cather­ine Ash­ton received much atten­tion dur­ing the peri­od between her nom­i­na­tion and her audi­tion in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. Sev­er­al ele­ments were stressed in that respect, by the media as well as by Bel­gian politi­cians. On the pos­i­tive side, the fact that she is a woman was con­sid­ered an encour­ag­ing devel­op­ment in EU pol­i­tics, which are main­ly dom­i­nat­ed by males. It was also said that the strat­e­gy of the Unit­ed King­dom, through its achieve­ment in mak­ing Ash­ton High Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Union for For­eign Affairs and Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy, was pos­i­tive: it would rein­force the role of the coun­try with­in Europe and would hope­ful­ly build a bridge between the Unit­ed King­dom and con­ti­nen­tal Europe.1010Le Soir, 20 Novem­ber 2009, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010). On the oth­er hand, the fact that she was nev­er elect­ed and has no major polit­i­cal achieve­ment on her CV was fre­quent­ly put for­ward. Her lack of charis­ma was con­sid­ered both as a pos­i­tive and a neg­a­tive ele­ment: although some oth­er can­di­dates, such as David Mil­liband, would have been pre­ferred in Bel­gium, at least her per­son­al­i­ty would not over­shad­ow the action of the Pres­i­dent of the Com­mis­sion, which is an impor­tant point for EU fed­er­al­ists in Bel­gium.1111Inter­view with Jean-Luc Dehaene, Knack, 25 Novem­ber 2009, avail­able at: www.knack.be (last access: 7 May 2010).

Final­ly, her audi­tion in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment was wide­ly con­sid­ered dis­ap­point­ing: she was described as lack­ing vision and clear objec­tives. The Bel­gian MEPs weren’t sat­is­fied with her audi­tion and thought that, although her gen­er­al pre­sen­ta­tion was good, she did not show enough knowl­edge on pre­cise, con­crete and key issues in inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics, but rather the way she would man­age her dou­ble insti­tu­tion­al role as part of both the Coun­cil and the Com­mis­sion.1212La Libre Bel­gique, 9 March 2010; La Libre Bel­gique, 1 Jan­u­ary 2010, both avail­able at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 9 May 2010); Le Soir, 12 Jan­u­ary 2010, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010); De Mor­gen, 11 Jan­u­ary 2010, avail­able at: www.demorgen.be (last access: 8 May 2010).

The European External Action Service: between intergovernmentalism and community method

In gen­er­al, the estab­lish­ment of the Euro­pean Exter­nal Action Ser­vice (EEAS) was pos­i­tive­ly per­ceived in Bel­gium, as it should allow Europe to speak with one voice in the world. Nev­er­the­less, some wor­ries were expressed. First of all, it was high­light­ed that the new sys­tem is nei­ther sim­pler nor more trans­par­ent. Con­trary to expec­ta­tions, the insti­tu­tions are still very com­pli­cat­ed, and the whole struc­ture resem­bles a mar­ble cake.1313Le Soir, 27 Decem­ber 2009, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010). Some Bel­gian Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment (MPs) crit­i­cised the numer­ous EU spokesper­sons at the inter­na­tion­al lev­el, but the Bel­gian Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs, Steven Vanackere, argued that it is of the utmost impor­tance that the EU speaks with one voice in inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics, no mat­ter how many spokesper­sons it has.1414Report on the pri­or­i­ties of the Bel­gian EU Pres­i­den­cy, Sen­ate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, 17 March 2010, doc. n° 4–1606/6 (Sénat).

Sec­ond, with the new struc­ture from the Lis­bon Treaty, there were some doubts and con­cerns about the role of nation­al for­eign min­is­ters. Indeed, with the new insti­tu­tion­al frame­work, it seems that they will be in the shad­ow of the EEAS and are cur­rent­ly look­ing for a new role to play and a new place in that frame­work.1515Le Soir, 6 March 2010; Le Soir, 14 March 2010, both avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010).

More­over, the con­cerns expressed on the bal­ance Cather­ine Ash­ton has to strike between the Com­mis­sion and the Coun­cil in the man­age­ment of EU for­eign pol­i­cy were fur­ther rein­forced by the doubts con­cern­ing the plans on the set­ting up of the EEAS. Indeed, this ser­vice was main­ly pre­sent­ed as bur­den­some, com­posed of up to 8,000 peo­ple, diplo­mats from the mem­ber states, and Euro­pean agents from the Com­mis­sion and could expe­ri­ence ten­sions between the inter­gov­ern­men­tal and the supra­na­tion­al sides of the Euro­pean project. Accord­ing to the media, poten­tial con­flicts could arise between nation­al diplo­mats, who tend to think that Euro­pean agents lack polit­i­cal spir­it, and EU “fonc­tion­naires”, who tend to see diplo­mats as too “nation­al-ori­ent­ed”. Jour­nal­ists also point­ed out the ten­sions between EU insti­tu­tions and mem­ber states con­cern­ing the EEAS. The first round was won by the mem­ber states, as they seemed to be the dri­ving force behind the nom­i­na­tions of the chiefs of EU del­e­ga­tions, but they tend to com­pete among them­selves for the jobs with­in the EEAS. The com­mon divide between small and large mem­ber states reap­peared: the lat­ter want­i­ng to have the most impor­tant posts and the for­mer fear­ing hav­ing noth­ing left.1616Le Soir, 27 April 2010, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010).

As far as the Bel­gian polit­i­cal elite are con­cerned, the Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs insist­ed on the rapid estab­lish­ment of the EEAS, declared to be in favour of sin­gle rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the EU and, there­fore, accept­ed to assign the entire exter­nal affairs respon­si­bil­i­ties to the EU del­e­ga­tions.1717Dec­la­ra­tion of Steven Vanackere, La Libre Bel­gique, 5 March 2010, avail­able at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 9 May 2010). Bel­gium will thus send “good diplo­mats” and “good Euro­peans” to the EEAS, i.e., peo­ple who will be loy­al to their new func­tion in Europe.1818Dec­la­ra­tion of the Bel­gian Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs, 6 March 2010. How­ev­er, he remains cau­tious of the recent deci­sions of the Com­mis­sion and, more par­tic­u­lar­ly, of Cather­ine Ash­ton con­cern­ing the EEAS. He insist­ed on the impor­tance of the com­mu­ni­ty method, by which he means that EU for­eign affairs should be based on mutu­al trust and under­stand­ing between the EU insti­tu­tions and the mem­ber states. There­fore, he argues that Cather­ine Ash­ton should be sec­ond­ed by vice-sec­re­taries, sim­i­lar to the US mod­el, and that there should be an exchange of reports and infor­ma­tion between the EEAS and the mem­ber states’ admin­is­tra­tions. Final­ly, he insist­ed on the nec­es­sary coop­er­a­tion with the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, as this insti­tu­tion received new pow­ers in Com­mon For­eign and Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy.1919Le Soir, 8 March 2010; Le Soir, 27 April 2010, both avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010); La Libre Bel­gique, 5 March 2010, avail­able at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 9 May 2010).

Final­ly, the estab­lish­ment of the EEAS will have an impact on Bel­gian diplo­ma­cy: both the Prime Min­is­ter, Yves Leterme, and the Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs, Steven Vanackere, stressed the fact that Bel­gium, as a small coun­try, should express the com­mon Euro­pean point of view in inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics and there­fore asked the Bel­gian diplo­mats all over the world to focus on eco­nom­ic issues as the polit­i­cal themes, which will be dealt with by the new EU ser­vice.2020De Stan­daard, 8 April 2010, avail­able at: www.standaard.be (last access: 6 May 2010).

European Citizens’ Initiative

This ini­tia­tive did not get much atten­tion in the Bel­gian polit­i­cal scene. The Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs Steven Vanackere and the State Sec­re­tary for Euro­pean Affairs Olivi­er Chas­tel declared that Bel­gium will coop­er­ate “in a con­struc­tive way” in order to shape the Euro­pean Cit­i­zens’ Ini­tia­tive.2121Meet­ing 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. This issue has also been the top­ic of the bilat­er­al dis­cus­sions between Olivi­er Chas­tel and his Euro­pean affairs col­leagues on 10 May 2010 (among whom are the state sec­re­taries of Por­tu­gal and Slove­nia).2222Meet­ing of Olivi­er Chas­tel with the Euro­pean Affairs min­is­ters, press release, 10 May 2010. He con­firmed that the Bel­gian Pres­i­den­cy, start­ing on 1 July 2010, will pay par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the final estab­lish­ment of the Euro­pean Cit­i­zens’ Initiative.

    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.
  • 2See the Bel­gian chap­ter on cur­rent issues and discourses.
  • 3VRT Radio, Inter­view of Mar­i­anne Thyssen (Par­ty pres­i­dent of Her­man Van Rompuy), 3 Novem­ber 2009.
  • 4Her­man Van Rompuy: Een eer en een erken­ning voor Bel­gië, speech, De Mor­gen, 20 Novem­ber 2009.
  • 5De Mor­gen: Britse euro­hater scheldt Van Rompuy de huid vol, 24 Feb­ru­ary 2010.
  • 6Meet­ing between Steven Vanackere and Olivi­er Chas­tel with a del­e­ga­tion of the AFCO (Com­mit­tee on Con­sti­tu­tion­al Affairs) of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, 11 May 2010; Meet­ing between Olivi­er Chas­tel with the Euro­pean Affairs min­is­ters, press release, 10 May 2010.
  • 7Par­lia­men­tary dis­cus­sion on the 2010 Fed­er­al state bud­get, doc. 52 2222/05, 19 Decem­ber 2009.
  • 8Report on the pri­or­i­ties of the Bel­gian EU Pres­i­den­cy, Sen­ate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, 9 Feb­ru­ary 2010, doc. n° 4–1606/3 (Sénat).
  • 9Report on the pri­or­i­ties of the Bel­gian EU Pres­i­den­cy, Sen­ate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, 17 March 2010, doc. n° 4–1606/6 (Sénat).
  • 10Le Soir, 20 Novem­ber 2009, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010).
  • 11Inter­view with Jean-Luc Dehaene, Knack, 25 Novem­ber 2009, avail­able at: www.knack.be (last access: 7 May 2010).
  • 12La Libre Bel­gique, 9 March 2010; La Libre Bel­gique, 1 Jan­u­ary 2010, both avail­able at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 9 May 2010); Le Soir, 12 Jan­u­ary 2010, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010); De Mor­gen, 11 Jan­u­ary 2010, avail­able at: www.demorgen.be (last access: 8 May 2010).
  • 13Le Soir, 27 Decem­ber 2009, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010).
  • 14Report on the pri­or­i­ties of the Bel­gian EU Pres­i­den­cy, Sen­ate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, 17 March 2010, doc. n° 4–1606/6 (Sénat).
  • 15Le Soir, 6 March 2010; Le Soir, 14 March 2010, both avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010).
  • 16Le Soir, 27 April 2010, avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010).
  • 17Dec­la­ra­tion of Steven Vanackere, La Libre Bel­gique, 5 March 2010, avail­able at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 9 May 2010).
  • 18Dec­la­ra­tion of the Bel­gian Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs, 6 March 2010.
  • 19Le Soir, 8 March 2010; Le Soir, 27 April 2010, both avail­able at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 8 May 2010); La Libre Bel­gique, 5 March 2010, avail­able at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 9 May 2010).
  • 20De Stan­daard, 8 April 2010, avail­able at: www.standaard.be (last access: 6 May 2010).
  • 21Meet­ing 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.
  • 22Meet­ing of Olivi­er Chas­tel with the Euro­pean Affairs min­is­ters, press release, 10 May 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.