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Divided Belgium takes over rotating EU presidency

Belgium’s caretaker government took over the six-month rotating EU presidency on Thursday, with outgoing president Yves Leterme (centre) hoping to tackle the EU's pressing economic woes as well as the political crisis back home.

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Belgium, a country fraught with divisions and grappling with a domestic political crisis, took over the EU’s rotating presidency Thursday, at a time when the EU is confronting the most serious economic crisis in the 27-member bloc’s history.

While formal ceremonies were kept to a minimum on Thursday, this weekend's planned festivities will include a choreographed dance piece “celebrating Europe,” which will be performed simultaneously in 12 Belgian cities on Saturday .

But analysts warn that politically the next six months of Belgium’s presidency are likely to be more of a free-for-all than a ballet.

“We have a rudderless country like Belgium taking over a rudderless union – that’s an easy thing to say, but it’s also probably quite an accurate assessment of what’s going on at the moment,” said Gerry Feehily, editor of the presseurop Web site.

Since June 13's inconclusive general election in Belgium, political parties representing the more affluent, Dutch-speaking, northern Flanders region and the poorer, southern French-speaking Wallonia have been locked in coalition talks.

Differences between the two sides run deep and Belgian coalition negotiations are never easy. This year, however, the challenge looks herculean, after the electoral victory in the north of the Flemish separatist New Flemish Alliance, led by controversial politician Bart De Wever.

In the absence of a national government, Belgium’s outgoing caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme has taken the reins of the 27-nation bloc from Spain.

 

Pitting permanent against rotating president

Another source of anxiety stems from confusion over the sharing of power between the EU’s rotating presidency and the bloc’s permanent president, a post that only came into existence last year under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty.

Herman Van Rompuy, a former Belgian prime minister, is currently serving as the bloc’s first permanent president. Briton Catherine Ashton is the EU’s foreign affairs chief, another post created under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty.

According to Feehily, under the Spanish presidency there was “a huge amount of confusion over how much power Spain could have inside the rotating presidency and I think it’s going to happen with Belgium as well.”

But some analysts believe that a Belgian presidency could allow Van Rompuy more elbow room than Spain were willing to provide.

During the Gaza flotilla crisis, when Israeli forces killed nine Turkish citizens on board a Gaza-bound aid ship, tensions between the Spanish foreign ministry and Ashton’s office were high, according to experts. Spain’s constant criticism of Israel was apparently a frequent source of embarrassment for Ashton’s office.

A ‘modest’ presidential style

Belgian officials maintain that despite the domestic political crisis, the country is well-prepared to take over leadership of the EU and that the bloc will not suffer under its stewardship.

On the foreign policy front, a vital administrative goal over the next six months is the formation of an EU diplomatic corps -- the European External Action Service.

But even Belgian officials acknowledge that the presidential style over the next six months will be "modest".

Critics claim that the exceptional challenges facing the EU, including economic woes and trying to forge international consensus on tackling climate change, require strong, not modest, leadership.

While the economic crisis is expected to dominate Belgium’s presidency, the perennial issue of EU expansion is also likely to raise its head. Belgian secretary of state for EU affairs, Olivier Chastel, has said that his country will keep working on Turkey’s application to join the EU. But Ankara's bid faces stiff opposition from Germany and France.

The million-euro question over the next six months is likely to be whether a modest, low-key presidency can shepard the 27-member bloc through the deep financial crisis and engage with differing economic policies on how best to tackle it in various European capitals.

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