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We might be faced with this situation sooner than we think: on Thursday Belgian Prime Minister Leterme handed in his resignation to the Belgian King due to his five-party coalition government being about to collapse with the Flemish Liberals and Democrats pulling out over the “BHV” affair with less than three months left before Belgium takes over the reigns of the EU Presidency on the 1st July.

Moral-political question: should they be allowed to run the EU Presidency? I have heard all three answers in the last 24 hours:

  • Yes, of course, because with the new institutionalised troika system, Belgium will be supported by Spain and Hungary and/or in any case the country holding the Presidency is simply following the Union’s priorities so their input is minimal. Also, Belgium is known to work particularly well when there is no government in place and, hence, they will probably even do a better job with a “Caretaker government”!
  • No, because how can Belgium lead from the front, find compromise solutions, broker deals and demonstrate leadership – fair point!
  • Don’t know: is the majority view because most citizens are clueless about what the EU Presidency is, let alone what it is supposed to do – a sad state of affairs.

Then I heard someone comment on the radio – no fear Herman Van Rompuy – a Belgian – will come to the rescue as the President of the European Union!

The reality is that Belgium will most probably muddle through with the support of the Spanish and the Hungarians and with a structure and system which seems to just keep rolling, despite institutional upheavals such as the “NON” to the EU Constitution or the Irish No to the Lisbon Treaty.

But do we simply want to push through and hope that the institutional snowball takes us forward? Clearly not and, hence, this latest possible scenario demonstrates that Europe still has a long way to go and needs to mature…

Blaming it on the Belgians though would be unfair as other Member States like the Czech Republic have been in the hot seat without a Government.

Russell Patten

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The growing buzz around the possible nomination of Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as future President of the European Council has revived old community ghosts and fears of another long political deadlock for Belgium.

A majority of Belgian people (even among the Francophones) are flattered and honoured that a Belgian politician may eventually become the first permanent President of the European Council, but at the same time, everybody is wondering what will happen to Belgium.

In TV reports, you can hear people saying “For once we had stability, but now he’s going to leave” and asking “who will replace him?”

For Flemish politicians, the answer is simple and obvious. Yves Leterme. Indeed, the current Belgian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister twice in the past seems to be the front runner to replace Mr Rompuy.

But for the Francophones, this is not good news. According to a recent poll, 61% of them think that the return of Mr Leterme will threaten the future of Belgium. Other Francophone politicians are calling for another General Election or even trying to bumble Mr Van Rompuy’s candidacy by stating he is not suited for the post as his political party refuses to ratify the convention of the Council of Europe on the protection of minorities… Francophone paranoia? Belgian Thriller ? Who knows ?

Van Rompuy knows that if he takes up the post of EU Council President this will mean another crisis. The debate is therefore much less about the next EU President and much more about the next Belgian Prime Minister. Van Rompuy? Leterme? Verhofstadt? Dehaene? Keyser Söze ? The usual suspects! As you can see there are nearly as many candidates for this position as for the EU job!

– Denis

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According to a study released recently by the Brussels Studies think tank, Brussels sees its expats as a ‘separate community’.

Being an expat myself, who came to Brussels, not by choice or to improve my knowledge of Belgian beers, but mainly motivated by professional opportunities; this study comes as no surprise. Indeed, after three years in this ‘separate community’, I fully understand the feeling of the Bruxellois who consider us as a sort of high-salaried and over-graduated ‘caste’ with its own codes, language, rituals, and even district.

If you want to experience “EU-land”, there is no better place than Place du Luxembourg on a Thursday evening around 7pm. This square, located a stone’s throw from the European Parliament in the very heart of the EU district; encapsulates the EU expat community. Young, good looking MEP assistants chatting with handsome and ambitious consultants (absolutely! – Ed.) while enjoying a couple of beers, switching from English to Polish, from French to Spanish; laughing and yelling about the latest rumour on the new Commissioner for Environment.

If you come from outside EU-land, you might not understand a single word of the conversation. I sometimes have the impression that the EU expat community is constantly living a second “Erasmus” exchange, with the difference that more money is involved.

English, or better said “Brussels jargon”, is the common language of expats. The EU-district is its working area, Ixelles, Etterbeek, Uccle, and Bruxelles-Ville are the places where the majority of expats live. You will rarely find an EU expat living in Scharbeek or Jette. EU Expats even have their bars and restaurants which they like to frequent on an almost daily basis, and there is even sports competitions organised between various groups of expats.

Then again, opportunities to meet Belgian people, except your local baker or the cashier in Delhaize, are rare. What a pleasure it is then for me when my Belgian uncle invites me for a Sunday lunch in Ganshoren. I enjoy the conversion with my cousins, about the bars and shops I have never even heard of, and truly realise that I am living in Belgium.

– Denis

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Daerden gets the ‘Big Cities” portfolio – Brussels beware!

Daerden gets the ‘Big Cities” portfolio – Brussels beware!

Prime Minister van Rompuy had to endure a cascade of criticism from the opposition after they had learned of the Belgian Federal Government’s reshuffle plans on which agreement was reached last night. Sp.a leader Tobback accused van Rompuy of leading a “Government of failures and misfits which is unable to take serious policy actions, with van Rompuy as the biggest looser leading the group”.

The reshuffle, which has been rubberstamped by King Albert II this morning, follows the regional elections of last month and the departure of Foreign Affairs Minister Karel de Gucht who will replace Louis Michel as the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, after the latter was elected to the new European Parliament.

One could be forgiven for having thought that Yves Leterme’s political life was over after having failed to lead two Governments before the King finally accepted his resignation after he was accused of having influenced the judiciary on the sale of Fortis to BNP Paribas. However, nothing should surprise you in Belgian politics and believe it or not but Leterme has now been appointed as Karel de Gucht’s successor, taking over the prestigious post of Minister of Foreign Affairs!

Another interesting appointment to the Federal Government is that of Michel “papa” Daerden. This Walloon Socialist acquired world fame through Youtube in 2006 after giving an interview to the press in a very “happy” mood, and is said to have been “dumped” into the Federal Government by the Walloon Government… Mr Daerden has been given the not too public portfolio of Minister of Pensions and the Big Cities.

Ah good old Belgian politics! It becomes clearer by the day that van Rompuy will not be the man taking Belgium out of its political deadlock. In the meantime, all the good politicians (and especially Guy Verhofstadt) are fleeing Belgian politics for European politics.

– Lieneke

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