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Troubled Belgium To Focus On Economic Crisis, EU's Diplomatic Arm As It Assumes Presidency

Belgium's caretaker prime minister, Yves Leterme (right), speaks with Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere during the presentation of the Belgian plan for the EU Presidency on June 25 in Brussels.
Belgium's caretaker prime minister, Yves Leterme (right), speaks with Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere during the presentation of the Belgian plan for the EU Presidency on June 25 in Brussels.
BRUSSELS -- Belgium takes over the European Union's rotating presidency from Spain on July 1, with its top priorities likely to be the economic crisis and the setting up of a new diplomatic arm for the EU, known as the European External Action Service (EEAS).

This is likely to mean a very low profile on foreign policy issues, with enlargement and the eastern neighborhood likely to take a backseat until 2011 -- when first Hungary and later Poland will take over the reins.

The EEAS is likely to consume most of the EU's energies on the foreign policy front for the next six months. Last week, a preliminary deal was struck between the EU's member states and central institutions, opening up the prospect that the body could be up and running by the end of the year.

Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere said on June 25 that ensuring the EEAS gets off the ground will be his main priority throughout his term as chair of the bloc's General Affairs Council, comprising foreign ministers acting on behalf of EU leaders on routine internal matters.

"I believe that this undertaking is fundamental for the role and influence of Europe in the world," Vanackere said, "and that by December 1 this year -- by which time [EU foreign policy chief Catherine] Ashton will have spent a year in her job -- an embryo of, and a start to, the External Action Service are a reality."

Impact On Enlargement

The EEAS, introduced last year by the Lisbon Treaty, will not have independent policy-making powers but will take its orders from the 27 member states acting in unison.

Ashton already chairs the Foreign Affairs Council -- bringing together the EU foreign ministers in their original capacity -- and will be left to pursue her own agenda, Vanackere indicated. In practice, however, a determined rotating presidency can still exert a significant degree of influence on the bloc's priorities.

Next year, the Hungarian and, in particular, Polish presidencies are expected to try and swing the pendulum of the bloc's concern back toward Eastern Europe, in which the outgoing Spanish Presidency showed little interest.

One area where the Belgian Presidency could make an appreciable difference is enlargement. Prime Minister Yves Leterme said on June 25 that the future of the Balkan countries in the EU remains unquestioned. But he threw cold water on Croatia's hopes of finishing its accession talks inside 2010.

"For Belgium, it is very important that these dossiers [Croatia's negotiating chapters] are treated on the basis of the content of the progress which is really made through negotiations," he said. "It is not [in the first instance] a political assessment we have to do."

'Technician Of Europe'

Leterme said Belgium during its presidency will be "technician of Europe," indicating the troubled country's ambitions over the next six months do not extend beyond keeping the bloc ticking over.

Belgium's lack of ambition reflects the country's own struggle to find an accommodation between the Dutch-speaking Flemish majority and the French-speaking Walloon minority.

Leterme is a caretaker prime minister after the June 13 general election was won in Flanders by an independence-minded party whose leader, however, has promised to keep the country together, for now.

Both Leterme and Vanackere promised their country will be an "honest broker" in the complex tug of war among institutions and member states to which the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty has given rise.

They said they would back "traditional structures," meaning the European Commission, the seat of the EU's federalist tendency, now under siege from Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council of member states. Ashton, too, though also a commission vice president, is largely answerable to the member states as foreign policy remains their exclusive sovereign domain.

Van Rompuy, as an ex-prime minister of Belgium himself, could prove valuable for the Belgian Presidency should the country find itself in a serious crisis. But van Rompuy is thought equally likely to use his position to cement his own standing in the Brussels power struggle.

Belgium has spent 2 1/2 years preparing for what will be its 12th EU Presidency. Leterme said his work program has the backing of 130 of the country's 150 members of parliament and has been cleared by all of Belgium's federal and regional governments.

The byzantine complexity of the country's federal structures could prove a blessing in disguise for the beleaguered country. Many of the lines of command already now circumvent the federal government, with ministers from the Flemish, Walloon, and Brussels autonomies chairing forthcoming EU meetings. This renders a functioning federal government -- at least for the bloc's purposes -- more or less redundant.