Belgians will go to the polls this Saturday to vote for a new government, just two weeks before the country is slated to take over the rotating EU presidency from Spain. Considering that it took Belgium nine months to form a government after the last general election in 2007, Brussels is getting increasingly worried about a potential leadership vacuum in the council after 1 July.
The difficulty, as with everything in Belgium, is over language. The Belgian government collapsed in April over a disagreement between French- and Dutch-speaking parties over whether an electoral district on the outskirts of Brussels should be part of the Brussels Capital Region or Flanders. It may sounds like an innocuous issue but it goes to the heart of the language conflict, as explained in this previous blog entry.
With such a complicated and divided society, the negotiations to form a government after the election are virtually guaranteed to take a long while. Opinion polls show the various party combinations to be almost even, with zero possibility for a clear winner. And as with every election in Belgium, there is always the possibility that the impasse will get so bad that the country could split up. It was a real possibility back in 2007.
While the Belgian political parties negotiate the formation of a government, a caretaker government will be in charge. Caretaker governments are essentially a non-government – they keep the country running by collecting taxes and paying public employees, but they don’t propose any new policy or make any real decisions.
Having this type of government for several months is not ideal at the best of times, but to have it while your country holds the rotating EU presidency is an absolute fiasco. An EU member state only gets the opportunity to lead the council of ministers once every 14 years. It's an opportunity for them to push for issues that are important to them, and to increase their international prestige. But a caretaker government will only be able to maintain the initiatives already launched by the Spanish presidency. They won't be able to take the initiative to push for their own priorities.
Of course as you may recall, the Lisbon Treaty set up a whole new presidency position - the president of the European Council. And that position went to a Belgian, Herman van Rompuy. The presidency of the Council of Ministers (basically the rest of the council other than the group of European heads of government, made up of ministers in specific subject areas from each state) still rotates between countries. When Van Rompuy took office everyone was wondering how the new council president would interact with the old ministerial presidency, and everyone looked to Spain to define that new relationship. But in reality it could end up being Belgium that defines the new council dynamic.
There is growing speculation that Belgium might just hand over the reigns of the ministerial presidency to Van Rompuy. Of course there's a limit to what one person could do leading the ministerial presidency, as it's the Belgian perm rep (permanent representation to the EU) that would in theory do the coordinating. But if the people in the caretaker government aren't allowed to set policy, perhaps Van Rompuy can set policy instead and instruct the perm rep on how to proceed. Similarly, the new EU foreign representative Catherine Ashton could be given greater powers under the defunct Belgian presidency than she had under the Spanish one. The result could be greatly expanded powers for both new positions.
Of course it remains to be seen how a Belgian EU presidency under a caretaker government will actually work. But judging by the fact that they apparently haven't even set up a web site yet, it's looking like this could be a bumpy 6 months ahead.