Why Michel is ready to sheathe his sword

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Series Details Vol.7, No.26, 28.6.01, p15
Publication Date 28/06/2001
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Date: 28/06/01

Foreign Minister Louis Michel tells David Cronin that diplomacy, not sabre-rattling, will be the hallmark of Belgium's presidency

BITING his tongue isn't something for which Louis Michel is renowned. Since his appointment in 1999, Belgium's foreign minister has used that tongue to lash targets as disparate as the far-right in Austria and Italy to President Bush. Over the next six months, however, the public looks set to see Louis the agitator recast as Louis the diplomat. "I won't have the same freedom of expression," he admits, referring to the looming Belgian presidency. "A pragmatist with a conviction," he is adamant that Belgium will act as guarantors of EU law and its treaties. He will have to work closely with Vienna and Rome, even though their governments have xenophobes whose views he finds odious.

Rather than rattling his sabre at distant targets, he has been more eager lately that Belgium should try to reconcile itself with its own history. In May, Flemish Interior Minister Johan Sauwens had to resign after engaging in a singalong at a rally for SS veterans. Michel swiftly urged a soul-searching debate about how Belgium could come to terms with its wartime past.

This weekend, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt will visit the former Belgian Congo. As part of ongoing efforts to compensate the state for suffering inflicted by its colonial overlords, an aid package worth €100 million has been promised. It was Michel who urged Verhofstadt to undertake the visit, believing it would be of far greater symbolic value than if he went there himself.

One of the biggest challenges thrown at the Belgians in the latter stages of preparing for their presidency has come courtesy of another small EU country, Ireland. Michel gives a different interpretation of the Irish rejection of the Nice Treaty to Commission chief Romano Prodi, who has argued that its ratification is not necessary for the EU's eastward expansion. "I think that factually [Prodi] is right but politically he is wrong. What we got at Nice is the minimum to guarantee the enlargement of Europe, in a way that enlargement will not endanger the current European identity. We must not discourage [the applicant states] with barriers. We must have some reinforced cooperation to help them join [the EU]. The treaty is a tool for allowing that."

But Michel makes it clear that he is not criticising Prodi. "I suppose he said that for tactical reasons: to avoid dramatising the [Irish referendum] result."

As Belgium is unashamedly federalist, it comes as little surprise that it wants to advance big integrationist ideas during its presidency.

Last week, it signed a memorandum on the future of Europe with the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Although all three Benelux countries want to see a fully-fledged European constitution, the Belgian proposal for a EU-wide tax to finance the Union's budget is conspicuous by its absence. This, admits Michel, was because of opposition from the Dutch.

While the outgoing Swedish presidency was able to explain its list of priorities by using the "three E's" slogan (employment, enlargement and environment), Belgium has presented 16 priorities. Some commentators have criticised this list for lacking focus and being too unwieldy.

Michel admits that the list reflects differences between the rag-bag of Liberals, Socialists and Greens that comprise his country's government. "The reality of a coalition is that every priority, every preoccupation must be accorded the same priority as the others. If there was a party with an absolute majority, it would probably be possible to have only two priorities. That would be easier to explain and more effective."

Asked what the biggest priorities are, he singles out progress on justice and home affairs, making EU common foreign policy a concrete reality and working towards the Lisbon goals of creating the world's most competitive "knowledge-based" economy. The declaration due to be agreed at December's Laeken summit - to set out separation of powers between governments and EU institutions - is a "philosophical priority".

Another factor certain to make life difficult is the current strain in transatlantic relations, especially over the Kyoto climate change accord and President Bush's plan for the "son of Star Wars" missile shield.

Michel has branded the US position on Kyoto as "brutal" but is hoping that tensions with Washington can be defused. "Europe must do everything it can to consult and cooperate with the US, but it cannot sell its soul," he says. "If the US asks Europe to lose its identity, to lose its difference, then we can't pursue that. Europe must live its own life in that regard. Kyoto is a good example."

But could the profound differences that exist on both sides of the Atlantic on environment, defence, foreign policy and trade issues assume crisis dimensions? "Neither Europe nor the US are interested in a crisis - but if the soul of Europe is put into question, that would be different." In such a case, Michel would no doubt reach for his sword of truth.

Interview with Belgium's Foreign Minister, Louis Michel. Article forms part of a survey on the Belgian EU Presidency, July-December 2001.

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