Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Belgium's 'invisible' EU presidency comes to an end

As the clock struck midnight last Friday, it wasn't just 2010 that was coming to an end. Here in Brussels, the new year also meant the end of Belgium's six-month period at the helm of the EU, as the country handed over the baton to Hungary. It was an interesting period for the rotating presidency, held for the entire six months by a country with no government. Yet despite the domestic political chaos, the presidency actually seemed to run fairly smoothly - or at least there weren't any noticable disasters. In fact if you weren't looking for it, you might have missed the Belgian presidency alltogether. It was a low-key, almost invisible affair.

Perhaps this was exactly the type of presidency that the EU needed at this time. After all, the Lisbon Treaty's creation of the new posts of President of the European Council and High Representative for Foreign Affairs was meant to downgrade the role of the rotating presidency to that of just a coordinator. Spain was the first country to take over the presidency after the treaty's adoption 13 months ago, and for those first six months of 2010 there seemed to be some confusion about the rotating presidency's new role. The Spanish foreign minister got in hot water a few times for appearing to speak for EU states when that role is meant to now be held by the new EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. And Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, effectively the last Socialist leader left in power in Europe, seemed to be pushing for high-profile agenda items in a way that overlapped with the role of the new European Council president Herman Van Rompuy.

Contrast this with Yves Leterme, who is temporarily holding the Belgium prime minister position as a caretaker while the country continues to struggle forming a government. Leterme was pretty much invisable during the entirety of the Belgian presidency. At the European Councils he was happy to hand the reigns over to Van Rompuy, who as luck would have it is not only a fellow Belgian but also a member of Leterme's own political party. And I'm not even aware of the name of the Belgian caretaker foreign minister, I never heard from him or her at all last year. Given that the caretaker government is not authorised to propose new policy, perhaps this is unsurprising.

Even the individual chairs of the ministerial councils were not from the federal government but rather from the regional governments - and they were consequently more low-profile (and laregely less ambitious) coordinators. For instance, the presidency's leader for environment councils was the environment minister of Flanders, and the leader of the competitiveness councils was the finance minister of Wallonia. Belgium is the only country that has ever given out the council leadership positions to regional ministers.

Yet despite this low profile, most observers are calling the Belgian presidency a success. It was able to guide through often tense negotiations on the 2011 budget to a succesful conclusion, pass new regulations on hedge funds and financial supervision, sign a free trade deal with South Korea and work through a compromise on developing a European patent (though it will be voluntary). Of course none of these were particular priorities for Belgium as a country, they were open agenda items of the EU when they rook over the presidency. But Belgium, with its long history of compromise because of its fractuous internal divide, was able to quietly broker compromises that brought these issues to a close. With no government Belgium was unable to bring its own policy agenda into the presidency as most countries are keen to do (just look at the wildly ambitious 2008 French EU presidency under Nicolas Sarkozy). But Belgium quietly did the work of coordinating discussions on the EU's priority areas. This is exactly the role that the Lisbon Treaty envisioned.

Of course the fact that the most pressing issue of these past six months has been the European debt crisis also contributed to sidelining the Belgian EU presidency. As a small country Belgium had little weight to throw around when it came to eurozone issues. The most important voice during the European Councils was that of Angela Merkel. Germany, as the financial heart of Europe, could be said to have been the real president of the European Council over the past six months.

Hungary takes the reigns

So will the Hungarian presidency continue the new low-key style set by Belgium, or will the country's new ambitious prime minister Viktor Orban (pictured right) try to steal the spotlight? Right now it's anyone's guess. As a small Eastern European country Hungary has little weight to throw around, and given the country's current chaotic political situation some are predicting Hungary's time at the helm could be as disastrous and ineffective as the presidency of the Czech Republic in 2009. Also, the fact that Hungary does not use the euro will make it irrelevent in the continued discussions over the European debt crisis. But the centre-right Hungarian prime minister who was just elected last year is known for his confrontational and limelight-seeking style, and he may push for a bigger role for the Hungarian presidency. Already Viktor Orban has enacted major domestic reforms in the country, slashing government departments, laying off workers, and fundamentally re-organising the state. In the run-up to the Hungarian presidency he has been travelling Europe to meet with every other EU leader.

But already Hungary seems to have gotten off on the wrong foot with the EU. On monday the European Commission threatened sanctions against the country for a controversial new media law that has consolidated all of the national broadcasters and would allow the government to force reporters to reveal their sources and to fine media outlets that threaten 'moral order'. The Hungarian media has said the new law amounts to blatant cencorship and could mean the end of press freedom in Hungary. On Monday the front pages of two major Hungarian newspapers declared press freedom in Hungary to be over. The EU is also looking into the legality of a new 'crisis tax' imposed by Orban on specific industries.

Given its size and circumstances, Hungary's rotating presidency seems likely to continue the low-key coordinator role of Belgium, though it is unlikely to have the same success. But given Orban's ambition and firey personality, this could be a presidency much different than its predecessor.


Captain Kid said...

I'm ashamed of being an european citizen for the next six months.

Crapoto said...

And just have a look on what comes next:

At least, a good presidency shoul come into function with Italy... in 2014 :-(

Petri said...

Humm, Crapoto, are you basically arguing that only big EU Member States can run "good" / successful EU presidencies..? Here is an interesting article comparing the Italian presidency in 2004 and the Irish one in 2005. It notes e.g. "[...] s...ocially constructed elements, such as expertise in EU affairs, political credibility, and attitudes towards European integration, have more explanatory leverage than purely power-based factors, such as country size, economic and political weight."

Pedro said...

At this stage, with that retard ahead of Italy, I don't see the Italian presidency as good news for anyone.

Crapoto said...

@petri: Not exactly... First, Italy is a founding member, it will not be its first presidency, as Poland or Hungary's ones. The experience is a real plus, as it could be for Luxembourg, France or the 3 others. I admit that the political cr...isis didn't help Belgium the previous 6 month, but it could have been worst (what about the previous czech example?)
Second the size could make the difference. Italy's a state with an important administration, because of its size but also of its administrative tradition and History, with a "natural" pro-european inclination.
Don't you think?