Wednesday

20th Mar 2019

Belgian presidency sets parliament in its sights

  • Belgian officials have set out on an MEP charm offensive (Photo: caruba)

Belgium formally takes over the EU's six-month rotating presidency from Spain today (1 July), promising a slimmed-down but professional performance under the bloc's new Lisbon Treaty rules.

"It's clear that the transitory period between Nice and Lisbon is over," Belgian foreign minister Steven Vanackere said earlier this week. "We intend to work a lot with the [newly empowered] European Parliament."

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The country, a founding EU member state, has plenty of experience as it heads into its 12th turn at the helm. Despite currently muddling along with a caretaker government, it insists it is capable of handling the bloc's ongoing economic troubles, which, officials admit, are liable to flare up again.

"September 11th [2001] took place under our last watch," said one senior finance official. "I think we can say we know how to deal with crises."

Economic issues are set to dominate the agenda, with a number of weighty files hanging over from the outgoing Spaniards. In particular, Belgian diplomats will need to use all their skills to broker a deal between member states and the European Parliament on the EU's financial supervisory package - the bloc's principle legislative response to the economic crisis.

Originally published by the commission last September, member states have since sought to weaken the measures while MEPs want to toughen them up in many areas, with the 1 January 2011 deadline for setting up the new supervisory bodies fast approaching.

Legislation on hedge funds is on the agenda of next month's meeting of EU finance ministers, with the issue of "third countries" - or how to apply EU rules to funds from outside the bloc - flummoxing earlier attempts at securing a deal.

National governments are also under pressure to outline their country-specific targets in areas such as education and research spending by December, as part of the EU's 2020 growth strategy.

The European Commission will come forward with legislative proposals this September on how to toughen the EU's national budgetary rules in the face of the region's recent debt crisis, while a taskforce under European Council President Herman Van Rompuy is set to produce its final report on the same subject in October.

The job of marrying these proposals will fall at the feet of the Belgian presidency. MEPs have slammed the process as overly "intergovernmental" - Brussels jargon for decision-making made between national governments directly rather than via EU institutions. Meanwhile, the prospect of earlier and tougher fines for fiscal miscreants and a "peer review" system of member states' national budgets is likely to ensure that the debate remains sharp.

Foreign policy

"The implementation of the Lisbon treaty will be a key part of the Belgian presidency. That is why you will not hear my views on foreign policy," Mr Vanackere declared on Monday.

The statement is a tacit acknowledgement of tensions that dogged the relationship between EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Spain's foreign minister Miguel Moratinos.

Mr Vanackere said he will not encroach on Ms Ashton's job of setting up a new EU diplomatic service, instead offering Belgian diplomats to "act under her guidance," including the staffing of undermanned EU missions abroad if requested.

Iceland, Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia will ensure that enlargement issues remain prominent over the next six months. "Moratinos said he would open three chapters on Turkey but the Spanish presidency didn't open any," said a Belgian official on condition of anonymity. "We want to open one, so maybe we will get it."

Spain in fact opened one minor Turkish chapter, on food safety, on the last day of its presidency on Wednesday, after the Belgian official's remarks.

Just as the Spaniards turned the EU's attention to Latin America, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belgium's former colony, is likely to pop up at some point on the agenda, with Belgium also keen to make progress on free trade agreements with Canada and India.

In home affairs, the new presidency will attempt to put some shape on the Stockholm Programme, the bloc's loosely agreed five-year plan on issues such as security, asylum and immigration.

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"We are still all stunned after Copenhagen," said a senior environment official. "We have no idea how the Mexicans are going to organise the debate."

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