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10th Dec 2016

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Belgians' pride in EU role quells euroscepticism

  • On the global stage Brussels receives lots of high-profile visitors. US president Obama came in March (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Belgians are more in favour of the EU than other Europeans but there are few 'take-home' lesson for other member states looking to quell rising euroscepticism.

Seventy percent of them see themselves as EU-citizens and nearly half of them feel Europe takes their view into account, in both cases significantly more than the average European.

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And while the next European Parliament is set to include many more eurosceptic deputies there won't be a surge of them from Belgium.

The only Belgian party that is campaigning against the European Union is the extreme right Vlaams Belang, friend of the France's National Front and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. But even it wants some sort of European cooperation and a eurozone (albeit without southern nations).

The country's biggest party, the Flemish separatist N-VA, says it is 'eurorealist' rather than outright eurosceptic. It used to be strongly pro-EU but in recent years N-VA president Bart De Wever – the most popular politician in the country – has flirted with a conservative, right-wing, hard-on-crime image.

In recent years he had a few talks with British PM David Cameron, who would like to see the N-VA as part of his conservative group in the European Parliament.

But the N-VA is hesitant. Cameron's Tories are more eurosceptic than the N-VA, which wants to stay in the euro, in the passport-free Schengen Zone and the common market.

Its approach to Europe could roughly be summed up as "Europe should involve itself a little bit less in everything".

Sounds vague? That's because it is. The N-VA's euroscepticism is not much more than a feeling of discontent with events in recent years.

All other political parties, both those in the south and the north of the linguistically divided country, are clearly in favour of the European Union.

The Belgian role in the EU

The broad answer to the question of why euroscepticism is not such a major phenomenon in politics or society is that Belgians are proud of their role in Europe.

On the global stage Brussels receives lots of high-profile visitors. This year alone has already featured visits by US President Obama and Chinese President Xi; there will the G7 in June, as well as endless European summits. Not bad for a small country that most people around the world probably don't even know exists.

Belgians are also proud of their role in building the Union: it's one of the six founding member states and Belgian politicians have been influential. Today Belgium 'has' two of the top jobs: Herman Van Rompuy as president of the European Council and Karel De Gucht as commissioner for trade.

Van Rompuy and De Gucht's influence on Belgian citizens, in terms of explaining the European Union, mitigates against the tendency of national politicians to blame all things bad on Europe while taking credit for positive developments themselves.

Most Belgians realise it is not Europe's fault if its sovereign debt and budget deficit are high. In fact, most look to Europe for a solution.

And for the more right-wing Flanders, which has to live with federal policies that are a result of a compromise with more left-wing Brussels and Wallonia, Europe provides a useful lever for structural change and budget consolidation that they themselves cannot implement.

Now don't be mistaken, Belgians are not in the habit of waving the European flag at every occasion. The media gives as few column inches and airtime to Europe as possible.

And Belgian government, both national and regional, is one of the worst when it comes to transposing EU directives into law, appearing regularly before the European Court of Justice as a result.

Belgians seem unbothered by this shoddy implementation of European legislation yet ironically are indignant when the UK blocks negotiations on new directives.

And even though nearly all Belgians will vote in the May European elections, this is because it's compulsory. No one knows how many would show up if it was a voluntary vote, but certainly much fewer.

So, can Europe take any lessons from Belgium? The answer is: very few.

Ultimately, Belgians' affection for the EU comes down the country's geographical location.

Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union. The EU institutions, the eurocrats and lobbyists around them, are at the heart of the country.

When Belgians see their 'own' Van Rompuy on TV welcoming Obama on behalf of the European Union, he is doing so on Belgian soil; and when Belgians walk the streets of their capital, unlike other Europeans, the EU is right there.

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