Centre d’étude de la vie politique, Université libre de Bruxelles

Expectations for the French Presidency

The French Presidency is generally well perceived in Belgium. France is considered as being able to make great achievements, having good diplomacy and being involved in most of the European policies. Moreover, the priorities defined by France are at the heart of citizens’ current concerns and there seems to be a real political will from France to come back to the centre of Europe. So, this presidency is seen in Belgium as more educational and serious than spectacular. However, two elements were often stressed. First, the ‘No’ vote to the referendum in Ireland reduces France’s margin for manoeuvre. Hence, France will have to deal with the consequences of this rejection and has to try to find a solution. The second source of anxiety comes from the French President himself, and his character. He will have to prove he can share the European “culture of compromise”, moderate his style (often seen as brutal or arrogant) and his impatience.[1]
 
On energy and climate matters, expectations are rather high for the French Presidency in Belgium. Belgium is confident that France will make good achievements on energy during its presidency. There was recently a meeting between the Belgian and French Prime Ministers to debate on energy policy and Belgium supported France in its desire to reach an agreement. More specifically, the beginning of a reflection on external energy policy is welcomed in Belgium. Those aspects of energy policy were perceived as rather neglected in comparison with the extensive discussions on internal and environmental aspects. As Belgium is favourable to an in-depth analysis of the multi-facetted problem of external energy relations, it hopes common orientations on energy security will emerge at the European level.[2]

Immigration was debated rather late in Belgium, but not directly in relation with the French Presidency. Indeed, the discussions on the directive on “common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals”[3] were difficult. The left-wing parties, trade unions and some NGOs vigorously protested against what they called the ‘outrageous directive’. They think it is too repressive and disproportionate, that it criminalizes immigrants and it undermines the EU norms for human rights.[4] Marie Arena (Socialist) was not satisfied with the directive and acknowledged there were some frictions within the Belgian government.[5] Moreover, the French project of a European pact on immigration is generally seen in Belgium as a new impetus for immigration policy rather than a real innovation.[6] The Prime Minister stated he wishes that France would promote a less restrictive and less repressive approach towards immigration during its presidency. According to him, immigration is indeed an example where an integrated approach is desirable.[7]
 
There was no debate on defence policy related to the French Presidency. The current context, with the negative result of the referendum in Ireland (partly caused by concerns on neutrality) is seen as particularly unfavourable to a EU agreement on defence policy.[8]
 
Neither was agricultural policy much discussed in Belgium during this term. The only element was the recent protest movement of milk producers because of price instability, due to the progressive dismantling of the regulation mechanisms from the Common Agricultural Policy.[9] But France is considered as having too strong of a national interest to serenely lead the debates on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy.[10]
 
Concerning economic growth and employment, no clear relation was made between current debates and the French Presidency. As elsewhere in Europe, people are deeply concerned by the inflation rate and the decrease of their purchasing power. The inflation rate in the Eurozone currently stands at 3.7 percent and in Belgium at 5.8 percent (June), its highest rate in 24 years. However, the Prime Minister is against the French proposal to decrease value-added tax on energy products and would rather favour measures to increase purchasing power.[11]
 
Finally, on the project of a Mediterranean Union, there were few reactions and the media coverage was rather limited and neutral. It mainly stressed the fact that the project is less and less ambitious: it will just be a reactivation of the Euromed Partnership (Barcelona process). But it will include all member states, although there are frictions on the financial support that needs to be found for the project.[12]
 
To conclude, we can say that the French Presidency seems well perceived in Belgium. There are many expectations vis-à-vis the next six months, especially because the French priorities are at the heart of everyday problems of citizens (energy, economy, immigration, employment). But there are two sources of anxiety: uncertainties concerning the consequences of the Irish ‘No’ vote and uncertainties concerning the character of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
 
Establishment of a European External Action Service
 
The official point of view of the Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs[13] is that the actual external actions of the EU are considered to be consistent and it will be one of the main tasks of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to examine this external consistency of the EU foreign policy. He is globally in favour of a European Foreign Affairs Minister and of a single legal personality that would be given to the EU. The Federal Parliament also thinks that the fusion of the Commissioner for External Affairs and the High Representative, in addition of its task of Vice-President, is globally a good thing, [14] but it fears that a confusion of interests might arise if the domains of the foreign policy and the security and defence policy are attributed to the same person. In addition, this High Representative depends on the unanimity among member states and therefore could do practically nothing if Europe is divided. The Belgian Parliament thus suggests this system should be kept momentarily but that the process should go further and be developed in the future.
 
More specifically, the Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs emphasizes the importance of the link between the European External Action Service and the High Representative. It could provide a ‘renewed dynamism’ within the Commission and could reinforce the supranationality of this body, where the Commissioners represent less ‘their’ member state.[15] In addition, the functioning of the Commission it-self might be reorganised by, for example, grouping the Commissioners working on Relex topics, Lisbon topics, etc. The Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs hopes that the scope of the European External Action Service will be “a broad one, along with a strong contribution from a strong Commission”. He believes that, next to the establishment of an External Action Service in Brussels, other main international organizations such as the UN or the IMF would be included in the plans for future deployments abroad. He also thinks that the External Action Service should become a service provider for the Commission, the High Representative and the President of the European Council. As a result, the latter would only need a small personal secretariat and the President’s office would receive a proper anchoring in the External Action Service.[16]
 
Similarly, the federal Parliament thinks that, even if the development aid still belongs in the domain of the community policy and is executed by its specific Commissioner, this External Action Service should have an independent structure that takes into account the distinct character of the development aid.[17] The Parliament also emphasizes the fact that this domain should clearly remain in the hands of an independent Commissioner and should not be delegated to an adjunct of the High Representative.
 
Concerning the functioning of the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC), a clearer distinction should be made between the ‘general affairs’ and the ‘external relations’. Currently, one should notice that the ‘general affairs’ section has become insignificant. The Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs hopes that the new structure will correct the disproportion between the two sections and that the ‘general affairs’ part will somehow be revived. Nonetheless, he also does not think that a division of the GAERC in two would be an efficient instrument to conduct policy.
 
The Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs also supports the idea of the establishment of ‘EU liaison groups’.[18] This idea, launched in Helsinki in 2005 would consist of the High Representative, the Commission, the presidency and a group of member states that are willing to join their forces for defining a particular foreign policy topic. The advantage of such a group is that, it not only avoids being associated with the existing understanding of a ‘core Europe’ (which is often perceived as excluding member states)[19], but that the common interest of the EU would be guaranteed by the presence and participation of the EU institutions. Nevertheless, he admits that this formula should be excluded from “crucial and well-established EU foreign policy” domains as the Western Balkans, Middle East, relations with Russia, etc. as well as subjects of major disagreements among member states.



[1] See La Libre Belgique, 30/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008); De Standaard, 01/07/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008); Le Soir, 30/06/08, 01/07/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008).

[2] Interview with a diplomat from the Belgian Federal Public Service of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development cooperation.

[3] Commission of the European Communities: Proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals, COM (2005) 391 final.

[4] See De Standaard, 18/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008); La Libre Belgique, 18/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008) and the following online articles; (last access: 22/07/2008); (last access: 22/07/2008); , (last access: 22/07/2008).

[5] See La Libre Belgique, 20/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008).

[6] See La Libre Belgique, 01/07/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008).

[7] See Le Soir, 19/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008).

[8] See La Libre Belgique, 01/07/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008).

[9] See Le Soir, 19/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008).

[10] See Le Soir, 01/07/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008).

[11] See Le Soir, 16/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008); La Libre Belgique 26/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008); De Standaard, 26/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008); Le Vif l’express, 19/06/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008).

[12] See Le Vif l’express, 01/02/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008), La Libre Belgique, 15/03/08, 21/05/08, 01/07/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008); Le Soir, 14/03/08, available under: (last access: 22/07/2008).

[13] Karel De Gucht: Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Speech given in Dublin at the Irish Institute for External Affairs, 09/10/07.

[14] Law project dealing with the Lisbon Treaty, External Relations and Defence Commission, Chamber and Senate, 04/03/08, doc.t 52-955 (Chambre) and 4-568/3 (Sénat).

[15] Karel De Gucht: Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Speech given in Dublin at the Irish Institute for External Affairs, 09/10/07.

[16] EuroActive: Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel de Gucht gave his backing to the EEAS, 13/05/08.

[17] Law project dealing with the Lisbon Treaty, External Relations and Defence Commission, Chamber and Senate, 04/03/08 , doc. 52-955 (Chambre) and 4-568/3 (Sénat).

[18] Karel De Gucht: Belgian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Speech given in Dublin at the Irish Institute for External Affairs, 09/10/07.

[19] Duke Simon/Keukeleire Stephan: Liaison Groups and EU foreign policy, in: The EU Foreign Service: how to build a more effective common policy, EPC Working Paper No. 28, November 2007, pp. 48-55.