EU presidency: Belgium, a complex country but an efficient diplomatic machine
Belgium has a long, intense and mostly positive relationship with the EU. The majority of member states are, therefore, happy with Belgium as president of the various Council formations for the next six months. However, the internal problems of this complex country are putting a strain on its reputation.
Belgium is a very small country, where several of the main European cultures and languages come together. No wonder Belgians are fierce defenders of multilateralism, on a global or more regional level. The country was often among the founders of international organisations, and with the NATO headquarters and the most important EU institutions on its territory, Brussels is one of the most important diplomatic hotspots in the world.
As adults are obliged to turn out to vote, the percentage of people who vote in European elections is no indicator of the popularity of the EU. Opinion polls, however, show wide support among the whole population.
The fact that different cultures and languages meet in Belgium also has negative effects: in particular, making it difficult to take meaningful political decisions. A prime example is the fact that Belgium is one of the worst member states when it comes to transposing EU directives. The country is very much in favour of common EU decisions, but when it comes to implementing them, enthusiasm is much lower.
Politicians have been trying to solve the complexity of Belgium by decentralising competences. This has led to regional governments with important powers and resources. The EU, as a principle, recognises only the member states, but has recognised the institutional reality of Belgium. As a consequence, many of the formations of the Council will be chaired by regional ministers. Inside Belgium there are detailed agreements on which government can represent the country within a Council meeting, and so which minister can now take the role of the president.
The Flemish government intends to use the Belgian presidency to promote the role of the regions within the EU institutions.
A major problem with the institutional arrangements in Belgium is that for most issues, multiple governments are competent. In theory, all competences are cleanly attributed to a particular level, but in practice, for most topics the different governments need to agree on how to act.
And this has become a huge problem in the polarised political scene. The different governments in Belgium have opposing views and interests, and the consequences have become very visible in recent EU decisions on climate, environment and energy. Belgium has generally abstained during votes in the Council because the national and regional governments haven’t been able to agree on a common view. Abstention was the only possibility, making Belgium irrelevant in the decision making process.
However, those internal divisions shouldn’t reflect too much of the role of president. In the run-up to the European elections, little legislative work remains to be done. Furthermore, the president has to find compromises – best achieved by keeping your own opinions low-profile.
Belgium has always been good at making compromises at EU level. Many Belgian politicians have been instrumental in this, in the Commission, the Council and the Parliament, for several decades. The coming six months will show whether that tradition is stronger than the new trend for strong profiling of individual politicians.
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