Ambitious presidency will need artistry and political skill to succeed

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Series Details Vol.7, No.26, 28.6.01, p20
Publication Date 28/06/2001
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Date: 28/06/01

By Michel Maroy

BELGIUM has presented ambitious priorities for its EU presidency. While reflecting some specific choices, they also reveal a common agenda.

Brussels wishes to maintain continuity in the European policy-making process. A presidency reaps what its predecessor has sown, and sows for the following one.

More and more, presidencies are influenced by current events and the evolutionary European process.

Nonetheless, the accent adopted by the Belgian presidency will be decisive both for ordinary Council of Ministers work and for preparations for the two summits at Ghent and Laeken. Given Belgians' reputation as forgers of compromise, the presidency suits them particularly well in the pre-enlargement atmosphere and in the difficult debate on Europe in the member states.

The logo of the presidency is a hat, an allusion to surrealist painter Rene Magritte. Belgium's ambitions for its presidency call for artistic talent and political skill. The focal point will be the Laeken declaration on the future of Europe. The whole presidency will be judged on this and on the perspectives it opens both for governments and citizens.

The time is ripe for reducing the distance between citizens and the European project, and reinforcing democratic accountability at all levels.

The details of the programme are no less ambitious: to bring the enlargement process forward following the road-map approved in Nice; to prepare for the euro; to pursue the Swedish effort to promote foreign and security policy, including defence; to translate the sustainable development strategy outlined in Göteborg into clear objectives.

Part of the Belgian agenda is to fulfil given missions: enlargement, opening of new chapters (Nice); setting up the rapid reaction force (Nice and Göteborg); implementing the internal market strategy (Feira); enacting the second wave of measures for maritime security (Nice); coordinating social security and sustainability of the pension systems (Stockholm and Göteborg).

The Belgians, for political and ethical reasons, will give specific accents to certain issues. Africa is clearly of concern to the country. There will also be a focus on observance of human rights which forms part of the implementation of the common foreign and security policy. Sustainable development should also get attention from a Belgian government with green ministers. Finally, in line with the Swedish approach, a social agenda has been a long-term key priority of successive Belgian governments.

The Nice Treaty declaration on the future of Europe stated that it opens the way for enlargement, and asks the Laeken summit to adopt a declaration defining the continuation of the process in the future.

The Nice declaration defines four questions which need to be addressed: the delimitation of powers between the EU and member states, clarification of the treaties, the status of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the role of national parliaments.

The Belgian prime minister, realising that public opinion requires a debate not on procedures but on substance, is calling for a broader debate to underpin the Laeken declaration. This will form the central ambition of the presidency.

Phillippe de Schoutheete, former Belgian permanent representative, says: "This timely ambition should help offer something new to Irish citizens, who are due to return to the polls after Laeken, and even perhaps to some MEPs willing to approve Nice after Laeken."

Guy Verhofstadt and Louis Michel want to address the fundamental question of "how to structure political life in an enlarged Union".

While not expecting definitive answers, they intend to arrive at a process with an agenda, a method and a calendar. The duo have reinforced their credibility by appointing a group of experienced advisors to help them analyse and test ideas.

Their challenge now is to show their creativity and talent for achieving a shared vision in a formula, which could be endorsed by member states and still satisfy public opinion, the European Parliament and national assemblies.

  • Michel Maroy is a public affairs consultant and a former Belgian ministerial advisor.

Article forms part of a survey on the Belgian EU Presidency, July-December 2001. Author is a public affairs consultant and a former Belgian ministerial advisor.

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