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A right song and dance

Civitas, 7 July 2010

For a high-spirited hour on Saturday evening the citizens of Belgium overcame the political struggles of the last few months in a display of unity across the country, writes Natalie Hamill.  On the 3rd July, 12 Belgian cities celebrated the start of Belgium’s 6-month EU Presidency with choreographed public dancing and an ‘I love EU’ festival that strategically brought together singers from the three linguistic identities of Belgium – Flemish, French and German.

The dancing provided a much-needed display of ‘togetherness’ and proved that, despite the collapse of yet another Belgian Government in April, the culturally and linguistically different communities of Belgium can unite.

Unfortunately, the dancing also served as a reminder that the EU’s rotating Presidency is now little more than a ‘stage show’.

Whereas the 6-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union used to provide an opportunity for the hosting member state to drive the EU’s agenda, the Lisbon Treaty’s creation of a permanent President of the European Council in December 2009, currently Herman Van Rompuy, has rendered the rotating presidency overshadowed and undefined. Spain’s EU Presidency, which preceded the Belgium one, was rather uninspiring and has gained the unflattering nickname of the “invisible Presidency”. Instead Herman Van Rompuy, the quiet and unassuming President of the European Council, stepped in and undertook many roles previously assumed by the rotating Presidency, usurping its power and relevance. For example, whilst the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Zapatero, outlined an ambitious agenda of summits, it was Mr Van Rompuy who called for the EU Economic Summit in February.

The simultaneous launch of the permanent EU President handed Spain the crucial responsibility of developing a clear identity and relevance for the rotating 6-month Presidency, and to ensure it had a worthwhile agenda separate from the permanent Presidency. In this responsibliity, Spain largely failed. Instead, the world looked on in bemusement as the EU acquired yet another unelected leader, and responsibilities criss-crossed confusingly between the two positions.

Spain attempted to use its position as Chair of a number of key EU meetings to assert its policy agenda, but this didn’t always go to plan. An EU-US Summit, scheduled for May in Madrid, left EU leaders embarrassed after President Obama pulled out, partly due to bewilderment over who is now in charge of the European Union. Instead of simplifying the leadership of the EU it seems the Lisbon Treaty has pushed the union further from answering “who to call when you want to speak to Europe”.

Furthermore, whilst Spain promised to work to restore the EU to economic growth, the country unfortunately found itself embroiled in its own economic crisis (Spain has a 20% unemployment rate and a public deficit of 11.2% of GDP).  Concentrating on implementing their own austerity measures and dealing with civic unrest, left Spain too frequently silent at the EU level.

It is clear that the responsibilities of the EU-rotating Presidency have been downgraded in recent months, and its role is unlikely to become more defined and relevant whilst a rudderless Belgium is at the helm.

Belgium has already signalled that it is happy to take a step back and allow EU President Van Rompuy to host all international EU summits between July and December. In fact, the most significant part of the rotating Presidency now seems to be the host state’s declaration of their intended policy goals for the duration of their ‘turn at the helm’. Unsurprisingly, Yves Leterme, (the caretaker Belgian Prime Minister until a coalition government can be established), has outlined Belgium’s policy goals, which include: returning to sustained economic growth across the EU, fulfilling the EU 2020 strategy and creating more jobs.

So Belgium’s “song and dance” launch of its EU Presidency aptly reflects the current situation. The rotating Presidency seems to have developed ‘two left feet’ and a tendency to ‘step on a few toes’, and is therefore might be happy to leave the centre stage and drift into the wings.

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