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Why stop at one? Belgium debates a rotating EU minister system

In Belgium, overcomplicating things is sometimes key to making the country work.

The linguistically divided country functions via a multi-layered political architecture — often referred to as an “institutional lasagna.” For example, four ministers are responsible for health policy in Brussels, the Belgian capital of only 1.2 million people.

In some areas, those power-sharing arrangements have spilled over into the EU sphere. Whereas other EU countries send one minister to represent the country in each area, Belgium has — for years — rotated who goes to Brussels for a few select issues, like environment or education.

Now, Belgium’s largest political party, the Flemish nationalists, is reviving a push to expand that arrangement to new areas. Their argument: The rotating system should reflect the power regional governments have accumulated within Belgium.

To an outsider, the idea might strain credibility. Belgium has five ministers responsible for employment alone. How could letting them all rotate through the EU corridors help an institution already known for its own sclerotic decision-making?

But to some Belgians, it makes perfect sense.

The current system has been in place since the 1990s, and since then, the Belgian regions have gained new powers via state reforms. And, according to Belgian law, regional governments are responsible for the international dimension of their powers. That could be interpreted to mean Belgians should be sending a rotating cast of ministers to EU meetings — gatherings where every other country sends the same minister each time.

Karl Vanlouwe, an MP for the Flemish nationalists (N-VA), ticked off the EU areas where he wanted rotating Belgian ministers: economics, justice, home affairs, telecommunications, foreign affairs. 

“We want a seat at the table,” he said.

Taken to its extreme, the push could even mean sending a parade of Belgian politicians to EU leaders’ summits — the Flemish minister-president next to the German chancellor this time, the Wallonian minister-president next to him next time, the Belgian prime minister finally getting his chance after that. 

“Yes, if that would be possible,” Vanlouwe said.

The issue will be on the table Wednesday when the different arms of the Belgian government meet. The Flemish nationalists are hoping to implement their desired changes in time for Belgium’s rotating EU presidency, which will span the first half of 2024.

Yet reaching a deal on the touchy subject will be hard, especially as Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Sophie Wilmès’ party is known for its fierce resistance. Opponents argue the arrangement is simply infeasible, constraining Belgian officials from creating the informal EU connections that are critical at a time when leaders increasingly carry out foreign policy via text messages or WhatsApp.

One Belgian diplomat dismissed the push as the country’s “Loch Ness Monster” — something people talk about occasionally before it inevitably disappears.

Resistance

While Spain and Germany also have a limited way of including regional ministers in EU delegations, Belgium is the only EU country where regional representation is so entrenched and politically sensitive.

Belgium is split into several regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, French-speaking Wallonia in the south and the Brussels Capital Region carved out in the middle. Each area has its own regional government, while Belgium’s federal government is made up of both Dutch-speaking and French-speaking parties.

The Flemish nationalists argue they are not the only ones who want to rotate more Belgian ministers through the EU. 

It’s an official demand from the government of Flanders, whose coalition includes the centrist Flemish Christian Democrats and the Flemish liberals. The French-speaking socialists, who lead the Brussels governments and the southern Wallonian region are also in favor, although they are less vocal on the issue. Belgium’s current coalition government, composed of several ideologically diverse political parties, has even promised to “evaluate and update” the system. 

But that’s no guarantee: The previous government — led by current European Council President Charles Michel — made the same promise and then failed to keep it. 

The French-speaking liberal Reformist Movement, which has overseen the foreign affairs ministry for over a decade, is especially known for its obstinance to changing Belgium’s diplomatic representation at the EU. The party’s resistance is twofold, said Steven Van Hecke, a professor in European politics at the Catholic University of Leuven. 

“They don’t want to give more power to the regions,” he said. “But for electoral reasons, they also don’t want to help the French-speaking socialists by making the regions even stronger.”

An official close to Wilmès insisted she is committed to advancing the issue, noting there have been a series of bilateral meetings to prepare the groundwork. The official stressed, however, that it’s a complicated task.

“We ask everyone to keep the end goal in mind: strengthening our position on the European stage by making sure everyone’s interest is represented in the best possible way,” the official said.

Four other Belgian government officials said the debate could still go both ways, with Wednesday’s meeting only serving as the opening meeting in what’s expected to be a long debate.

Any future changes will likely depend on how much the Flemish nationalists decide to press their stance. While the pressure campaign is symbolically important for the nationalists, actually implementing the proposal is a bit technical.

“It’s not clear how far they want to take this,” said one of the Belgian officials. “The Belgian [EU] presidency is approaching very fast.”

Vanlouwe stood firm. 

“The goal is clear,” he said. “A bigger seat at the European table before the Belgian presidency.”

Belgian sausage-making machine

There is more at stake than Belgian representation in the EU corridors. 

The country’s devolved political system is already making it hard for Belgium to act with one voice at the EU level. Belgium’s various governments often struggle to agree on a common position, leaving the country with no position at all on some EU issues, or with a half-baked compromise difficult to explain.

Conversations with over a dozen Belgian officials involved in EU affairs, including former and current senior diplomats, paint a picture of a sausage-making machine that’s so complex it only makes sense if you’re on the inside.

And even then, several of them admit, it drives them crazy.

“This coordination system has reached its limit,” said one former senior Belgian diplomat. “We are famous for the art of compromise-making, but that only goes so far.”

“It’s a consensus model,” said Van Hecke, the EU politics professor. “If there’s no consensus, Belgium has to abstain, which gives the regions a de facto veto power.” 

This veto power was most visible when the Walloon region temporarily blocked Belgian approval of the EU’s trade deal with Canada in 2016. 

Fights like that are only the tip of the iceberg — exposed for everyone to see and mock. Behind the scenes, these contentious discussions and power struggles are omnipresent, infecting everything from climate policy to the EU’s future debt rules.

Belgium, of course, is not the only EU country riven by internal political divisions or fractious coalitions. Even countries with centralized governments like France fight heroic political battles.  

Yet Belgium adds another layer of complexity, said Tom Delreux, a political science professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain: Regular discussions between the different regional governments. 

That allows the Flemish government to block compromises between Belgium’s other governments. This, the proponents of the current system argue, is the real problem. The more Belgium abstains at the EU level because it doesn’t agree internally, the more leverage Flemish nationalists have in their call for change.

Another diplomat sees the glass as half-full, arguing the intra-Belgian debate gives the country a head start.

“Even if we don’t agree on a position internally, it gives us an advantage on the upcoming intra-EU debate,” the diplomat said.

Creative diplomats can weigh in even without clear political marching orders, the diplomat added: “As a more neutral player, we’ll try to steer the debate in a way that ultimately profits Belgium, as well.”

But not having a clear position can make it difficult for Belgium to really affect European decision-making, said Delreux. 

“Because of these intra-Belgian negotiations,” he said, “the Belgian compromise is often the lowest common denominator and thus rather close to the status quo.”

Camille Gijs contributed reporting.

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