It is common knowledge that a chicken runs faster once its head is cut off. This witticism is circulating in European corridors as a comment on the Belgian EU Presidency. It was widely acknowledged to be extremely successful despite the absence of a government with full powers.
The past six months mark a first in European history. Other countries holding the Presidency have experienced a change of government during their European half-year. But until now, no state at the helm of the Union had ever had a caretaker government for the full six months. However, "this political incapacity did not hamper ministers," assures Olivier Chastel, Belgian state secretary for European affairs and mainstay of the Presidency. With Belgium in neutral, they had more time to devote to European matters, he noted half-jokingly.
The Belgians secured agreements on almost everything on their agenda. The most visible advances were concluded under the leadership of Finance Minister Didier Reynders at the Ecofin Council, with the adoption of a supervisory architecture for financial services, a directive on alternative investment funds and another on fiscal cooperation.
Belgium aimed to place the innovations introduced by the Lisbon Treaty firmly on track following the Spanish EU Presidency's transitional role. In contrast to the Spanish Prime Minster, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who had tried to steal some of the limelight from Herman Van Rompuy, Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme was happy to be eclipsed by the new permanent European Council president. Belgian diplomats hope that this modesty - the aim of the Lisbon Treaty - will be followed by future Presidencies.
However, the Belgians were not simply discreet. They also worked to put in place the new initiatives contained in the treaty, in particular the External Action Service and the citizens' initiative. The Union's post-Lisbon financing is also assured thanks to the agreement on the 2011 budget. State Secretary for the Budget Melchior Wathelet - son of the former Belgian judge at the EU Court of Justice - managed to reconcile the initially very distant positions of the member states and Parliament. "We had to be fairly schizophrenic, defending the Council before the European Parliament and defending Parliament before the Council," Wathelet, widely considered a rising star in national politics, commented after the negotiations.
According to a...