A Very Belgian Contribution

It has always seemed a curious paradox that the major policy-making institutions of the European Union should have settled in Belgium, a country with a political system in a permanent state of turmoil, deeply divided on political and linguistic grounds, yet somehow able to keep functioning as coalitions come and go and politicians struggle with the issues of national and regional identity. One might ask what sort of precedent that sets for trying to resolve conflicts at a European level?

Yet it never seems to be a problem. On July 1 2010 a Belgian caretaker government will once again assume the presidency of the  European Union.

Nobody appears the least concerned at the uncertainties following Belgium’s general election. Belgian leaders have been quick to stress that the programme for the country’s presidency will remain unchanged, while the position of former prime minister Herman Van Rompuy is a great comfort in his role as president of the European Council.  His Belgian countrymen see him as one of the family, and he can certainly bring to the EU all the skills of cunning and compromise which surely all top Belgian politicians must have.

Of course the EU presidency is not what it was pre-Lisbon. Spain has tried to sustain a significant role during its six month tenure, but has faced some serious disappointments, not least when President Obama declined a Spanish invitation to visit, and when the Union for the Mediterranean summit which had been planned for June 7 had to be postponed. The six monthly presidencies are now confined to more mundane topics. Future incumbents should not get too ambitious, especially as Van Rompuy strengthens his authority within the Council.

There is every sign that President Van Rompuy is proving much more effective than most people believed possible when he was chosen for the job last November. He has streamlined the European Council meetings to make them shorter and more focused, has emerged as a potent force in co-ordinating eurozone initiatives in the face of the euro crisis, putting the eurozone president Jean-Claude Juncker in the shade, and is pushing hard for a much more proactive innovation and economic reform agenda. His pragmatic, low key approach seems to be what’s needed.

Baroness Ashton has shown less obvious promise as the High Representative, although any European official charged with creating  a new foreign service which brings together more than 6,000 officials from the Commission, the Council and the member states deserves much sympathy. It can’t be easy to cut a dash on the world stage at the same time as you are wrestling with the hydra-headed monster of national and European interests and the demands of all those bureaucracies.

At least the ground work seems to have been done to create  the European External Action Service (EEAS). The agreement reached on Monday June 21 between representatives of Council, Commission, Parliament and the High Representative holds out the real possibility that the service will be operational by the end of the year. All that’s needed now is formal parliamentary approval.

When the EEAS does take wing, it is clear that the European Parliament will have a considerably enhanced role in EU external relations. The operational budget will remain under the Commission’s aegis, so ensuring parliamentary scrutiny,  the Parliament will have a bigger say in policy initiatives and – following MEP demands – at least 60 per cent of the staff will be recruited from the EU institutions, thus placing the centre of gravity firmly with EU rather than national interests.  Officials nominated as EU heads of delegation in third countries will have to attend hearings before being confirmed in their role.

Certainly the Americans have been quick to recognise MEPs’ ever-increasing say in external relations issues (SWIFT is a case in point). Hillary Clinton sees a parallel between the role of the EP and that of Congress in the US system and has strengthened contacts accordingly. It is a clear sign of shifting power balances between the EU institutions.