Hope for an early second Irish referendum but no major concern about the future of the EU

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

The Irish ‘No’ created of course some concerns about the integration process and the future of the European Union (EU).[1]  But Belgian politicians seemed to take a very pragmatic approach and were rather confident that a solution would be found for both Ireland and the EU. Globally speaking, press coverage did not reflect any major concern about the European integration process itself. It seems that the EU remains largely taken for granted by public opinion and politicians in Belgium. There were little doubts the crisis would end although there were some debates about the length of the current situation. 

The Irish ‘No’

The Belgian political elite, particularly the Prime Minister Yves Leterme, claimed to be willing to be patient and tolerant as they understood the troubles faced by the Irish government. However, although the Prime Minister noted that Ireland needs time to solve its problems, the only solution envisaged by Belgian politicians and media was the organisation of a second referendum that should take place quickly. Indeed, the only solution put forward in Belgium was the organisation of a new referendum on the Lisbon Treaty with a text that would take into account the so-called “four Irish problems”, i.e. abortion, neutrality, fiscal autonomy and the national representation within the European Commission.[2]  Moreover, it was highly expected that this referendum, this time, would be positive[3]  and would take place before the two major deadlines of 2009: the European Parliament elections and the formation of a new Commission in autumn.[4]

Reform of the Commission

At the same time, the compromise that emerged after the European Council concerning the composition of the Commission is a very sensitive issue for the Benelux countries. With the original Lisbon Treaty, the Commission’s reform was planned to increase its supranational character by diminishing the number of Commissioners. The current compromise is seen as a step back as it still guarantees the representation of each member state within the Commission (one Commissioner per member state). The Belgian Prime Minister Leterme, thus wishes that this compromise will be temporary. Although the priority of the Belgian government is the treaty ratification, the Prime Minister stated that it should not happen at the expense of the treaty’s essential elements or the efficiency of the European Commission.[5]  Media coverage also insisted on the necessity for Ireland to organise a second referendum.[6]

European elections

Other issues related to the EU’s future were not much discussed during the semester.[7] European elections gained attention when the political parties published their electoral lists for these elections in January 2009.[8] This lack of attention can be explained by the fact that the European Parliament and regional elections are held the same day and the latter are perceived as much more important in terms of stakes by the population. Indeed, although participation rates are generally high in Belgium,[9] it is mainly because vote is compulsory and not because Belgians are interested in EU affairs or the European Parliament elections. This was confirmed by the “Eurobarometer Citizens and the 2009 European elections, results for Belgium” that showed that 53 percent of the Belgian respondents are not interested in these elections.[10]

In conclusion, Belgians were not preoccupied with EU affairs during the second semester of 2008. In this regard, the major concern was the potential threat to the supranational character of the European Commission although the priority of Belgian politicians was still to find a solution after the Irish ‘No’.


 

[1] See Le Soir, 11 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009); De Standaard, 11 December 2008, available at: www.standaard.be (last access: 12 February 2009); De Morgen, 09 December 2008, available at: www.demorgen.be (last access: 12 February 2009).

[2] See Knack, 9 July 2008, 6 November 2008, 17 November 2008, available at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Le Vif l’Express, 26 November 2008, available at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Several polls presented by the media showed that Irish people were in favour of the Lisbon Treaty.

[3] See Le Soir, 11 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Le Conseil européen de Bruxelles. 15 et 16 October 2008, Report realised for the Federal Advice Committee in charge of European affairs, 27 November 2008, Document 1616/001 (Chamber) and 4-0985/1 (Senate).

[4] See Le Soir, 11 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Knack, 10 December 2008, available at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 February 2009); De Standaard, 11December 2008, available at: www.standeard.be (last access: 12 February 2009).

[5] See Knack, 9 July 2008, 6 November 2008, 21 November 2008, available at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 February 2009).

[6] The only fact that was noticed was that Belgium will lose two seats in the European Parliament after the 2009 election and there was a debate about which Belgian community should lose a seat. It was finally decided that both French-speaking and Dutch-speaking communities would lose a seat, see Knack, 27 November 2008, available at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 February 2009).

[7] See Knack, 22 January 2009, available at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 February 2009).

[8] Only 6 percent of the people declared they would not vote for the European Parliament elections, Special Eurobarometer299: Citizens and the 2009 European elections. Results for Belgium, available at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_299_be_en.pdf (last access: 12 February 2009).

[9] Ibid.