Ireland's Presidency of the Council of the European Union has been made more difficult by the failure to negotiate a new budget fo

Friday 21 December 2012 11.09
Robert Devriese downplays the probability of a break-up of Belgium
Robert Devriese downplays the probability of a break-up of Belgium

Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union has been made more difficult by the failure to negotiate a new budget for the union, according to Belgium’s Ambassador Robert Devriese.

"Their (Ireland) agenda has become heavier with the multi-annual financial framework, negotiations not having been successful. We are now very much in the hands of Ireland," he said.

Ireland begins its Presidency in January.

He’s critical of the difference in rhetoric and deed displayed by some.

In the latest in the Ambassador series, Cormac Ó hEadhra interviews Belgium’s Ambassador to Ireland, Robert Devriese

"We ask more and more from Europe when it comes to investment, education…mainly within the Euro 2020 (economic growth) Strategy. But we don’t want to spend any money on it, which is rather disappointing."

Mr Devriese added: "there is also a lot of work on Ireland’s plate" in having to implement mechanisms like the Euro 2020 Strategy, the two-pack and six-pack.

"Ireland is not a beginner", he says, acknowledging the country’s experience in handling negotiations at European Union level. But at another point he alludes to recent behaviour in European politics which may impede Ireland’s efforts at progressing crucial issues.

When asked if leaders approach negotiations in Europe with an overly nationalistic perspective, as opposed to what is best for the Union or the eurozone, he answers affirmatively.

"I think that’s a fair remark. It’s very sad to realise that that is indeed the case. There are very few people who think European anymore."

He channelled thinly veiled criticism at Great Britain and how it manoeuvres in a European context.

"There is such a remarkable difference between what we do and what we say. I’m thinking mainly of one country which says one thing which is very eurosceptic, not to say hostile...and on the other hand, when you see how they behave within the institutions they work very much for the institutions."

"That’s a good guess" is his reply, when asked if he means Great Britain.

Belgium’s Economy

The Ambassador said his country’s economy is "even more open" than Ireland’s. Thus the export sector was hit by the current economic crisis.

However, he’s of the belief Belgians have been heavily insulated from the worst of the crisis by the country’s economic model and social protection.

"Thank God we pay very high taxes, but we have a very efficient social network, social security. Our safety net was so efficient that the people were hardly hit."

11m people live in Belgium and its rate of unemployment is approximately 7.5%, which is significantly below the average of 11.7% in the eurozone.

Many of the European Union’s institutions are located in Brussels. NATO’s headquarters is also there. Mr Devriese accepts this is a boon to the local economy.

"The EU…they pay something like €4bn for the use of the buildings."

He also mentions the large numbers of civil servants and local people employed in the institutions.

But paying for an effective social safety net will soon become more difficult for Belgium. Its population is ageing, though less quickly than the OECD average. The Ambassador has already eyed where extra funding could be extracted.

"We have an incredible amount of wealth that people are sitting on - private households have something like €600bn. The insurance companies have something like €200bn. So that means just from a financial point of view, it’s about €800bn that is readily available for investment.

"I think we will have to consider very carefully how to attract these funds and how to invest them in social infrastructure.’

When asked if this means Belgians may also be forced to pay more in taxes, he points to the fact that they are the third most taxed population in the EU. Ireland, he adds as a ‘funny parallel’, is third lowest.

"Considering the wealth that is available there we can go through other means to attract finances."

Secession

Belgium is among a number of countries within the European Union being challenged from within its own borders.

The Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (The New Flemish Alliance) party, led by Bart de Wever is pushing for the independence of Flanders.

The party made significant gains in recent municipal elections.

The Ambassador said Belgium was accused of not being viable as a state since its inception in 1830 and even before then.

But a recent shift in how Dutch speaking Flanders in the north and French speaking Wallonia in the south interact troubles him.

"The only worrying thing in all this is the communities that have been living together for a long time, since the Middle Ages…the main danger occurred when the political parties, which were unified parties, Flemish, Francophone throughout the country…were split, the two main areas started to live more and more separately."

He noted how the press in each region was separate and didn’t heed each other. He believes this has a profound effect on the country’s cohesion.

"Some people in Flanders hardly know...what happens in Wallonia and vice versa…they hardly know each other."

He downplays the probability of a break-up of Belgium.

"The Flemish Alliance is so popular because of its chairman…if Bart de Wever disappears then I’m afraid the party goes with him."

He mentions the (approximately) 30% support the party got in Flanders and underlines it’s ‘only 30%, that means 70% is not voting for the Flemish Alliance.’

Mr Devriese is also not convinced people who vote for the party take its plan for secession seriously and points to a recent poll which suggested only 7% or so of the Flemish population is for separation.

Progress in Europe

While broadly positive about how the European Union is dealing with the current crisis, Belgium’s Ambassador is critical of the last European Council summit.

He said much was achieved but more was expected in terms of a road map.

He was also critical of the European Commission and how it’s dealt so far with the negotiations on the Financial Framework.

"It is indeed a bit strange that Olli Rehn is insisting on having austerity imposed throughout the EU but when it comes to the Commission apparently they don’t come up with ideas to reduce the expenses of the administration."

He says this is ‘disappointing’ but insists the European Union’s budget is modest compared to national expenditure.

"The European budget is 1% of total European produce. It’s absolutely...its ridiculous compared to national budgets....they average national budget is 40% of total produce."

He agrees with the policy of further integration within the eurozone in an effort to strengthen the economies of Europe and the union. But when asked if the worst of the financial and economic crisis would be over by the end of next year or if was too early to predict, his answer is stark.

"Far too early to predict. 2015 looks like a better time."

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