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Annemie Neyts, Belgian Deputy Foreign Minister
outlines Belgium's priorities during its presidency of the EU
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Wednesday, 4 July, 2001, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
Belgium brings its quirks to the EU
Belgium has just taken over the EU presidency
By Europe correspondent Oana Lungescu

As one of the six founding members of the EU, little Belgium has long-standing experience in holding the EU's rotating presidency.

But the country which has just been handed the reigns of the EU presidency also brings its particular national quirks to the European stage.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt switches language mid-sentence
Listening to Belgium's youthful prime minister Guy Verhofstadt can be an unnerving experience. He switches constantly from Flemish to French to English, sometimes in mid-sentence.

It may be confusing to the listener, but the Belgian prime minister has to take into account the two main communities in his country - the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons.

After all, Belgium's motto as president of the EU is "unity in diversity". The previous holder of the presidency, Sweden, was simplicity itself, with its three main priorities - employment, enlargement, environment, also known as the three Es.

There is no such simple formula for Belgium, which announced no less than 16 priorities, in order to pacify all the six parties that make up Mr Verhofstadt's rainbow coalition.

Chairing the council

But diversity doesn't stop there. One of the main tasks of the country holding the EU presidency is to chair the regular ministerial meetings - or councils - of the 15 member states.

When EU research ministers gather in Brussels later this year, their host won't be the Belgian research minister, as would seem normal, because federal Belgium has none.

We're not only a federal country, but also a practical country

Belgian diplomat
The meeting will be chaired instead by the prime minister of the Brussels region. A member of the Flemish government will preside over gatherings of education ministers - and the Walloon minister for culture will occupy the Belgian seat during that particular council.

This is the first time that the country's often fractious regions play such an active part in the presidency of the EU. Under a complex agreement drawn up last year, EU meetings were divided into four categories, depending on who is supposed to speak for Belgium on each issue.

"But how will you be able to coordinate them all," I asked a senior Belgian diplomat. "Oh, Belgium is so small," he answered with a smile. "And don't forget - we're not only a federal country, but also a practical country, which allows us to be a federal country."

EU summit

Belgium's pragmatism and fascination with constitutional matters will come in handy at next December's EU summit, when Guy Verhofstadt will try to find an agreement on such controversial matters as a future constitution for Europe and the division of powers between EU institutions, national governments and regions.

But above and beyond their diversity, there is something that unites all Belgians - their unabashed love for cartoons and their surrealist humour.

The Grande Palace
The Grande Palace will host a huge open-air show to launch the presidency
No wonder then that the logo of the Belgian presidency is a bowler hat in the colours of the national flag - red, yellow and black, a playful reference to the paintings of Rene Magritte and the two bowler-hatted detectives in the Tintin cartoons.

Next Monday, the historic Grande Palace in Brussels will host a huge open-air show to launch the Belgian presidency, called "Hats off to Europe".

Interestingly, it's the first time that all of Belgium's regions and linguistic communities will work together in such a project.

According to the website of the Belgian presidency, the show will feature puppeteers, pyrotechnics, imagery, aerial structures and wizardry. All of those will come in handy over the next six months, as Mr Verhofstadt tries to juggle his many priorities.

And he'll need all his wizardry to convince his own people that Europe isn't just a con trick.

At the last count, 40% of Belgians had no idea that their country was taking over the presidency of the EU and less than 20% had any interest in talking to any politician, whether national or European - the lowest score in the whole of the European Union.

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See also:

02 Jul 01 | Europe
Belgium assumes EU presidency
26 Jun 01 | Europe
Belgium's EU agenda
18 Jun 01 | Europe
Analysis: Gothenburg's legacy
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