Belgium

Belgian strikers demonstrate in Brussels earlier this month to protest new austerity measures.

Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, announced overnight (via his now customary way of communicating to the press: Twitter) that he will hold a previously-unscheduled summit of all 27 presidents and prime ministers on January 30.

The gathering is expected to deal with the new intergovernmental treaty to enshrine tough budget rules that leaders hope will be completed by the end of the month — though with a huge amount of eurozone debt coming due in January, the gathering could yet transform into another crisis summit. Diplomats say its likely to start around lunchtime.

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/euHvR/status/149194091232624641"]

One slight problem with that, however. Belgian media is reporting this morning that local unions have announced an event of their own for January 30: a general strike to protest new austerity measures announced by the just-formed government of prime minister Elio Di Rupo. Their ire is focused on proposed changes in pension laws that would force delays in early retirement. 

Belgium's flag

Image by Getty.

One week, two set-backs for Belgium. First markets started attacking its debt, then the putative prime minister throws in the towel in his protracted efforts to form a new government, citing lack of common ground between the main political parties over the 2012 budget. After 529 days of negotiations, is it time for a technocratic government?

It’s probably a bit soon. Elio Di Rupo, the Socialist leader, may have offered his resignation to King Albert II, but it has yet to be accepted. It would not be the first time that Di Rupo has “resigned”, only to be begged to stay on as new, unexpected consensus is found. The King, at his countryside estate recovering from a recent nose operation, is consulting party leaders this week and will advise on Di Rupo’s fate later this week. A few have already reaffirmed their faith in Di Rupo.

Two factors suggest a government is closer at hand than may at first seem the case. 

Belgium sets a dubious record on Thursday when it overtakes post-war Iraq as the country that has gone longest without a government.

It’s a surreal achievement greeted with a mix of amusement and quiet despair in the streets of Brussels. (I speak of “Brussels” as the capital of Belgium here – Eurocrats based in the city pay only passing attention to things Belgian).

For those not following the Kafkaesque saga that is Belgian politics, ever since the government collapsed on April 26th, and after Flemish nationalists became the country’s biggest party in the ensuing June elections, politicians have been unable to patch over linguistic and cultural differences that separate Dutch speakers in Flanders from Francophones in Wallonia. 

Given the messy state of their own affairs, the prospect of Belgium’s EU presidency raised nervous eyebrows in Brussels before the summer break. Unable to form a government in their own country since April, how could the Belgians possibly run one that binds together 27 member states?

Nigel Farage, the euro-loathing UK Independence Party leader, delighted at this predicament on the floor of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “You still can’t form a government in your own country, and yet you’re presidents of the European Union!” Mr Farage snorted. “Whichever way you look at it, the whole thing is a bit of a dog’s dinner, isn’t it?”

Well – Mr Farage notwithstanding – the emerging consensus is that the Belgians are proving rather effective. At least so far. 

Herman Van Rompuy, the European Union’s first full-time president, is getting down to business.  Hitting the ground running?  Not exactly.  But in various subtle ways the mild-mannered, philosophically inclined former Belgian premier is already making an impact on the way the EU goes about its work.

On Monday, his first official working day, he announced that he was summoning all 27 EU heads of government to Brussels on February 11 for an unscheduled summit on economic policy.  This statement didn’t attract much attention, because plans for such a summit were being laid even before Christmas.  But the announcement was significant nonetheless.  Chairing summits is one of the few duties that the EU’s Lisbon treaty specifically reserves to the full-time president.  By calling an unscheduled summit, Van Rompuy was signalling to the world that he intends to use his presidential authority to the full. 

Is it Islamophobia, ignorance, a crisis of European identity, a problem of a poorly integrated minority community, or something of all of these? 

According to an opinion poll published in today’s Le Soir , one of Belgium’s leading newspapers, some 59.3 per cent of Belgians support a ban on the construction of new minarets in their country.  This is about 2 per cent more than the proportion of Swiss who voted in a referendum last month to halt the building of new minarets. 

So it looks as if it is to be Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s prime minister, as the full-time president, and Catherine Ashton, Britain’s EU trade commissioner, as the foreign policy supremo.  This is the culmination of eight years of efforts, starting with the EU’s Laeken Declaration of 2001, to reform the bloc’s institutions and give the EU a more dynamic world profile.

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, thinks the EU had a historic opportunity in its grasp and flunked it – at least as far as the full-time presidency is concerned.  The British government itself was saying more or less the same thing until tonight.  It was adamant that the EU needed a big-hitter as president to convince the rest of the world that the EU was going places.  Now it has participated in a classic EU trade-off that has produced exactly the result it said would be no use to anyone. 

The sun is shining in Brussels and the sky has an unseasonably blue, cloudless, late-November-in-Rome quality as European Union leaders make their way here for the summit of summits - the event where they will choose the EU’s first full-time president and new foreign policy chief.  I wonder if the weather will be so fine when the leaders finally drag themselves away from the negotiating table after what is shaping up to be a night of relentless hard bargaining.

By general consent, the frontrunner is Herman Van Rompuy, the amiable, haiku-writing Belgian prime minister.  Even a speech he gave in 2004 that reveals him to be an implacable opponent of Turkey’s entry into the EU (Turkey has been an official candidate for the past four years) doesn’t seem to be doing Van Rompuy any harm.  Well, why should it?  It fits in perfectly with the views of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

There can be few presidential campaigns that have kicked off with the declaration “I am not a dwarf”.  But this is what Le Monde quotes Jean-Claude Juncker today as saying in the interview in which Luxembourg’s prime minister reveals he would consider being a candidate for the European Union’s presidency “if the call came”.

I have interviewed Juncker and seen him in action more than a few times over the years, and I can confirm that he is not a dwarf – though I have heard other disparaging terms applied to him that need not concern us here.  What most interests me is the enormous gulf in perceptions of Juncker’s potential candidacy between the UK and certain mainland European countries.