Whether or not it is good for Europe, it is very bad for Belgium

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 19, 2009

So the news is spreading that the Belgian PM, Herman Van Rompuy, would be the first president of the EU. I am not going to comment on what that means for the EU now. It’s after nine in the evening here, and I’m preparing my teaching for tomorrow morning (and for reasons I need not disclose in this post, I need my time to prepare).

But despite time shortage, one thing I am happy to throw in cyberspace is a prediction that this will not be good for Belgium. Not a very hard-to-make prediction indeed. In the last years I’ve blogged here, once in a while, on the political instability of Belgian politics, indeed perhaps even the instability of the very future of Belgium; and Van Rompuy seemed to have been the only one able to bring calm back, and at least lead a more-or-less functioning government. His professional skills and talents in making compromises in extremely difficult situations will certainly be very useful in Babylonian Europe; but who will rescue Belgium? How long will it take for the Belgian government to have a new PM, and is there anyone to be found with the same authority that Van Rompuy has been able to command? Tonight Belgium will celebrate that this little country has been able to achieve something powerful, but tomorrow it will wake up with headackes…



P O'Neill 11.20.09 at 1:03 am

It seems that we shift from the presence of the EU institutions being a destabilizing factor in Belgian politics as your earlier posts explained through its impact on the linguistic balance to the very specific disruption of key personnel being tapped for the new position.


John Quiggin 11.20.09 at 3:08 am

On the optimistic side, there are lots of ways in which the EU looks like Belgium writ large, and yet, over the long haul, it has gone from strength to strength, with the creation of the presidency being another step in this process. Perhaps Belgium can manage something similar – not sure how, though.


chris y 11.20.09 at 8:46 am

For some values of “the long haul”. Belgium has been there since the Treaty of Vienna and seems to me only to have hit serious internal problems in the last generation. The Treaty of Paris, which established the ECSC, was signed in the year I was born. So, a pretty short haul in the greater scheme of things. When the EU is 200 years old, we’ll see about its track record.


John Quiggin 11.20.09 at 9:26 am

There’s a well-known Chou En-Lai story with a similar burden. But my favorite is probably apocryphal, about a debate on investing the funds of an Oxford College. After the economics professor argued that historical experience proved the benefits of a balanced portfolio, the history professor demurred, noting that “the last 400 years have been quite exceptional”.


JoB 11.20.09 at 9:56 am

For once I may be the closest to an expert here ;-)

Bear in mind that the guy was only in office for a year or so. He did not solve any of the problems but succeeded in postponing the discussion of them. This indeed was a very, very welcome strategy. But not one that makes the problems go away. He apparantly is staying until he gets some kind of roadmap for the negotiations.

Europe is not at all like Belgium by the way. Belgium is falling apart – Europe is coming together. He would have been more experienced in the context of the Israël, I guess. & no, it’s not that bad; just politics, no shooting, no looting.

That being said: Herman is an ethical conservative to the bone. His crypto-mysticism, as per his haiku-loving, is telling. Luckily these are not responsibilities of the EU yet, & I’m sure he’ll agree, knowing full well that he’s out of date ethically but refusing to let it go.


JoB 11.20.09 at 10:02 am

And anyway, it’s good for Holland as they get another year or so to cure themselves of the own political diseases.


Chris Bertram 11.20.09 at 11:20 am

In my experience of management, postponing discussion of problems really does make lots of them go away, since people find ways of coping pending resolution.


chris y 11.20.09 at 11:28 am

This is the “If nobody’s noticed yet that nothing’s happened, delete it; if anyone cares, they’ll resend eventually” approach. Pretty much universally applicable (except perhaps in medicine).


chris y 11.20.09 at 11:29 am

OTOH, deleting Belgium might be considered a little too radical.


JoB 11.20.09 at 11:49 am

Chris, it’s, amongst another things, a constitutional problem but, yeah, if it ain’t in the Anglo-Saxon world it’s not real, now is it?


Joe 11.20.09 at 5:44 pm

It’s a funny line Van Rompuy’s crossing. This sort of puts him in the ex-pat community in his own country. It’s an amazing thing how insulated from Belgian politics that community can be. I spent a year in Brussels studying international politics, and yet had almost no impression of the country’s domestic politics at all. Same city, yes, but very, very different world (as, again, is NATO, an institution he apparently favors).

So good luck to the guy–he’ll probably need it. But I can’t see how this is anything other than really bad for Belgium. And I wouldn’t expect Van Rompuy to be available to perform any pro bono shuttle diplomacy on the domestic front any time soon.


Sam Centipedro 11.20.09 at 5:46 pm

Isn’t the motto of the European Union “Nunc omnes Belges”?


alex 11.20.09 at 6:34 pm



JoB 11.20.09 at 6:44 pm


1. in having no clue on our domestic politics you’re very like the average Jan Peeters

2. he has agreed to continue as PM until there’s agreement on how to resolve our issue

You know, Belgium managed for 175 years, most of which were without Van Rompuy – this is the fourth round of redrawing the state’s institutions in the last 30 years, he was only there for the last, least succesful, one.

Come on, there’s life outside the Eurocratic community, you know.


Zeba 11.21.09 at 12:03 pm

Having lived in Belgium for the past five years, including the 18 months or so when there was no government, I am not sure that Van Rompuy at the head of Belgium or the head of the EU will make much difference to either entity.

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