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Belgium, in search of a government, to assume EU presidency

Divided and with no new government after a general election, Belgium will take over the rotating EU presidency on July 1, with only “modest” ambitions as Europe confronts its biggest crisis in decades.

“We will first of all be at the service of the European institutions,” Belgium’s caretaker prime minister Yves Leterme said Friday as his country prepares to assume the reins of the European Union for a six-month stint.

“We want to adopt a modest position,” he added.

One Belgian for whom that could be good news is Leterme’s predecessor Herman Van Rompuy, who gave up the Belgian premiership in December after he was chosen to become the first permanent president of the EU.

With his country taking a relative back seat, the discreet, haiku-writing Leterme may be able to impose himself more firmly on European affairs, and thereby take the spotlight off Jose Manuel Barroso, who heads the EU commission, the bloc’s executive arm.

Leterme does not have too much choice, his administration is only in charge of day-to-day affairs in Belgium as talks continue to forge a new coalition government following this month’s elections which saw Flemish separatists come out on top.

With coalition-building talks between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and francophone parties in the less affluent southern region of Wallonia fraught with difficulties, a new government is unlikely to emerge until October at the earliest.

Europe faced a similar situation early last year when the Czech government collapsed halfway through its turn at the EU helm, with the result that Prague lost all influence on the running of EU affairs.

Despite its modest ambitions, the Belgian EU presidency’s programme is unequivocal at the enormity of the challenge Europe faces in the coming months.

“The current crisis (is) on a scale without precedent during the last 50 years,” with massive debts and deficits, rising unemployment, a falling euro, an aging population and increasing competition from emerging powers.

The Belgian programme foresees forging a way out of the crisis and boosting regulation of the financial sector to help ensure there is no repeat.

But it will undoubtedly give space to both Van Rompuy and the EU’s nascent External Action Service, the bloc’s first diplomatic corps, headed by High Representative Catherine Ashton.

“We are prepared to limit our role as the rotating presidency because that will give some space for Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton to exercise their new powers,” Leterme said, with Belgium acting as “facilitator”.

Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the country holding the rotating presidency, Spain for the most part, has assumed a co-pilot’s role on European affairs.

That formula created some friction at the beginning of the year when Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero wanted to play the main role.

“The fact that there is a government of day-to-day affairs in Belgium will help,” Van Rompuy, said Andrew Duff, British Liberal Euro MP and a specialist on the EU institutions.

“The prospect of having Leterme meeting Obama, Putin, the Iranian leaders would have been difficult in the current context,” he added.

The New Flemish Alliance, which ultimately wants independence for Belgium’s northern region, came out top in last month’s legislative elections.

Led by Bart De Wever, the party wants independence, eventually, for Flanders which already has its own autonomous government.

“The Belgian EU presidency will not be hampered by the (national) transition period,” De Wever has assured.

Van Rompuy will be hoping that Belgium’s turn at the EU helm will allow him to finally shrug off the “Mr Nobody” tag handed him by former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

And he may even answer his most vociferous critic, UK Independence Party MEP Nigel Farage, who famously called him a “damp rag” in the European parliament and asked “Who are you? I’d never heard of you, nobody in Europe had ever heard of you.”