Pro-Europe Belgium stands firm

14th June 2005, Comments 0 comments

As the headquarters of unified Europe, Belgium is squeezed between the French and Dutch rejection of the EU Constitution and the latest budgetary squabble. What does Brussels, the Belgian capital, think about Europe? Aaron Gray-Block reports.

There is trouble brewing in Brussels.

First there was the French 'non', followed by the Dutch 'nee' to the EU Constitution and conflict is again flaring up over unified Europe's budget.

EU leaders will gather in the Belgian capital this week to solve the growing crisis.

In the background, host nation Belgium has been quietly moving towards ratification of the all-important constitution.

Senators approved the treaty in April, followed by an "overwhelming" vote in the Lower House of Parliament in May. The five regional parliaments must now give their assent also.

Immediately after the no votes in France and the Netherlands, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt was adamant the ratification process should proceed.

"Every country must first have the opportunity to give their opinion about the European constitution, either via parliament or a referendum," he said.

Britain has another opinion, temporarily shelving its referendum last week. However, France, Germany and the Netherlands have all urged for the ratification process to continue.

And despite the British decision, Ireland, Denmark and Poland have decided to proceed with their referendums.

The Belgian attitude

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht is convinced a referendum in Belgium would have given a "whole-hearted" yes to the EU constitution.

He was backed up by a poll in March indicating out of 1,200 people polled, 49 percent would vote yes and 12 percent would vote against the constitution.

However, Socialist Minister of State Louis Tobback is convinced the Belgium public would have voted no and urged Europe to unveil a better ideal to win public support.

Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht

Others have also cast doubt on De Gucht's confidence: "He suffers a little from self overestimation", sociology professor Mark Elchardus with the Brussels Free University (VUB) has said.

Leuven political scientist Marc Hooghe stressed a referendum in Belgium would have been a close shave.

A backlash against the constitution could have been felt in Flanders, where the right-wing and politically strong Flemish Interest party (Vlaams Belang) would have waged a hard 'no' campaign.

In the end it didn't matter though, because the Belgian parliament voted in March against legislation paving the way for a referendum.

Ratification continues

Despite this week's EU summit, a spokesman for Prime Minister Verhofstadt told Expatica the Belgian ratification process will continue.

Belgium's five regional parliaments are now expected to back the EU constitution by September at the latest.

Verhofstadt: ratification process must continue

And this seems to echo popular will: Verhofstadt's spokesman said each and every Eurobarometer has indicated the public is in favour of the constitution.

One of the European Commission (EC) surveys even indicated in March that Belgians have more faith in EU institutions than in their own government.
Some 70 percent of Belgians 'believe' in the European Parliament, while just 49 percent have faith in the national parliament.

The EC survey also found 68 percent have faith in the European Commission and just 43 percent back the Verhofstadt government.

Without a referendum as a gauge, these polls are the only unequivocal evidence of the Belgian public's faith in the EU.

But is it all in vain?

Essentially, the EU constitution died with the French vote and was buried with the Dutch 'no' several days later. Such an argument was heard loudly in the British parliament last week.

However, the draft constitution says if at least 20 member states ratify the treaty, it will be referred back to the European Council. This means an EU summit will be held.

Nevertheless, the political director of the independent European Policy Centre, John Palmer, believes a new constitution

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