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Belgium, beset with political woes, assumes EU presidency

Belgium on Thursday assumed the EU presidency for a six-month term, hoping to help the bloc out of economic crisis despite the lack of a new national government after a general election.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme will provide a willing face for the Belgian EU presidency, as Spain handed over the reins after its stint in the chair, but he is only running day-to-day affairs nationally while talks on forming a new coalition trundle on.

Those talks are between parties representing the more affluent Dutch-speaking northern Belgian region of Flanders and poorer francophone Wallonia in the south.

Such negotiations are never easy in a country where no political party operates nationally but this time round they are even more difficult after Flemish separatists became the biggest party at the early elections in mid-June.

Few observers are expecting a new coalition government to emerge any earlier than October, which would be half-way through Belgium’s turn at the European Union helm, leaving the new team precious little time to get a grip of the dossiers and, more importantly, do anything with them.

While the Belgian authorities assure that all is well-prepared and that the European Union will not suffer under its stewardship, the current Finance Minister Didier Reynders has said he would prefer the caretaker government to remain in place until the end of the year, to finish the job.

“For Europe it would be better to continue like this,” until the end of the year, he says in an interview to be aired on French parliamentary television channels Thursday.

“But I also look at the situation in Belgium” and the “sooner there is a government in Belgium the better”, Reynders added.

However the kingdom, one of the founding EU nations, has promised a “modest” presidency.

That could give more elbow room than Spain provided for Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s first president and a former Belgian prime minister, and the bloc’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton

Belgium has set itself the objective of strictly applying the EU’s reforming Lisbon Treaty, which came into force last December.

That text created the posts of both Van Rompuy and Ashton and relegated the rotating EU presidency which Belgium is assuming to the second tier.

The formation of an EU diplomatic corps — the European External Action Service — to back up Ashton will also be a key priority for the Belgians.

On the vital economic front, the plans are to accelerate talks on beefing up financial regulations and pushing forward discussion on economic governance for Europe.

Reynders also intends to discuss tax harmonisation and a common industrial policy.

No formal celebrations are planned Thursday to herald the start of Belgium’s stint at the EU presidency, though there will be some events at the weekend.