Given the messy state of their own affairs, the prospect of Belgium’s EU presidency raised nervous eyebrows in Brussels before the summer break. Unable to form a government in their own country since April, how could the Belgians possibly run one that binds together 27 member states?
Nigel Farage, the euro-loathing UK Independence Party leader, delighted at this predicament on the floor of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “You still can’t form a government in your own country, and yet you’re presidents of the European Union!” Mr Farage snorted. “Whichever way you look at it, the whole thing is a bit of a dog’s dinner, isn’t it?”
Well – Mr Farage notwithstanding – the emerging consensus is that the Belgians are proving rather effective. At least so far.In terms of legislative accomplishments, they already have a sprawling financial services package in the bag. The Belgian presidency will soon preside over the signing of the long-gestating EU-South Korea trade pact after managing to bring an unpredictable Italy back on board. There is some talk that they might also forge agreement on a common European patent, a policy idea decades in the works.
“I think it’s going very well,” José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, recently observed. One unscientific measure of the Belgians’ performance is that anxious Europhiles seem to be increasingly fretting about the upcoming Hungarian presidency.
Three obvious reasons help to explain why the Belgians have proved adept at running the show. They are, by necessity, good at languages – even if they can’t agree on one. In addition to the well-known Flemish-French divide, the country also features a sizable German-speaking population. And then there are the expats.
The Belgians also benefit from the fact that one of their own, Herman Van Rompuy, is the European Council president. This must help to smooth the awkward post-Lisbon treaty relationship between the EU’s first permanent president and the rotating presidency that passes every six months to a different member state. Finally, the complexity of Belgium’s domestic politics seems to be an ideal training ground for the three-dimensional chess game that is the EU. To a veteran of the Flemish parliament, it’s possible that the EU seems like a game of checkers by comparison.
If that were not enough, a Belgian aid to a top MEP suggested to me yet another possible factor in the country’s favour: with their own government in paralysis, he observed, idle Belgian ministers have plenty of time to devote to their EU presidency.