How Europe Got A Belgian Council President (Guest Post By Dr. Arf)

Another marvelous guest post by Dr. Arf.

So, by now all us Europeans are living in a different European entity. Because, even if some of our Head Honchos will be jittery about calling a spade a spade, we now have a European president. Woo- hoo, break out the champagne, throw huge, lavish parties with people madly dancing, drinking and fornicating in the streets into the night for a fortnight. Or should we?

Because, my fellow Europeans, we didn’t get no Obama as EU president. While there is a cautious ?yes we can’ (if we stick together) attitude, my country’s now ex- Prime Minister and your EU Prez, Herman (not Herbert, you foolish English tabloids) Van Rompuy isn’t particularly know for his talent to rally people for the cause like his American counterpart still can, even with some lost feathers near the end of his term’s first year.

The new EU Prez (source)

No, good old Herman is the greyest mouse you could possibly have for the job and expresses himself in haiku (this is the first and last time I will refer to that, and don’t expect me to write one on his behalf, thankyouverymuch). If you’ve been following the European news for the last couple of days, you will have heard several terms come back about Herman. ?Aloof’, ?boring’, ?consensus builder’ and so on… You will get my own take on Hermie, but let’s just start at the beginning, which was roughly two weeks ago. Being a Belgian native, I witnessed firsthand how this Union got its Belgian Prez.

With the election of the seat about three weeks away, there were rumours – I had to find out through the BBC’s excellent comedy panel show ?Have I Got News For You’ – about a number of people who were named as candidates : Dr. Fil’s second home native EU bobo Jacques Santer, Holland’s very own adult Harry Potter clone and PM Jan-Peter Balkenende and The Man Who Is President Of So Many Foundations And Institutions He Hardly Knows Which Ones, Only That He’s Filthy Rich Because Of It, the UK’s former Labour PM, Tony Blair.

I admit, the latter’s a rather lengthy moniker, but it is all too true. Blair even prides himself in being the spokesperson for British supermarket chain ASDA in… Palestine! Anyway, to cut a long, money grabbing story short : all of this was sufficient reason for many a EU country to veto Blair’s candidacy, no matter how much Gordon ?I think the whole UK wants to lynch me’ Brown put his foot down and backed the guy he shoehorned out of Downing St. No. 10 against all odds. (Cue Phil Collins song) Brown would eventually drop Blair’s candidacy in exchange for the EU socialists getting a British Foreign Affairs Minister in Cathernie Ashton. All’s well that ends well…

Anyway, there they were; all major candidates in a row. Oh yeah, there were some others too and almost as an afterthought, Van Rompuy’s name was mentioned as one of them. Cut to a week later and our local journos (on Flemish TV, that is, since I live in The North) came out with the news that their well informed sources within the EU Parliament had told them Hermie was a strong candidate, opposed by no one. When asked, our PM said nothing at first and a week later only that he wasn’t asked and that he didn’t intend to run. But IF asked, he would.

However, this ?no opposition’ claim wasn’t really all that true. Aside from other ?informed sources’ who contradicted that there was consensus about Van Rompuy, there was clear opposition… from the UK tabloid press. And the further in the week and the stronger the rumours about our PM’s impending leap up the political ladder, the fiercer the rumours got. The conservative Daily Telegraph, not particularly known for getting their facts straight but rather for their, eh, conservative stance at all cost, even named him ?Herbert’. All rather silly and all rather out of proportion, unless you know that almost all UK news media is siding with the Tories in the UK right now and they are already campaigning for next year’s national elections. The Tories are fierce – pointy teeth and all – Eurosceptics (anti- European more like it). Then again, political Britain just wants the EU’s benefits and none of the responsibilities and the difference between Labour and the Tories is as thick as a teen’s pubic hair.

Meanwhile, last week, when PM Van Rompuy’s candidacy rumours were getting beyond the point of ignoring, a new problem surfaced in the media : if Herman – the guy who managed to build a consensus between politicians from both North and South on a national level and got a – albeit flimsy – grip on Belgium’s economic crisis – was going to run Europe, who would be running the country? One name popped up : Mr. ?800.000 Votes Can’t Be Wrong’, Yves Leterme. And the mere mention of the man prompted francophone newspaper Le Soir to literally impose its veto on Leterme as Belgium’s PM, merely because they don’t like his style and they, or rather, editor in chief Béatrice Delvaux (who managed to utter the ?faux pas’ “I believe that Leterme” before correcting ?I’ into ?the paper’ on national TV, thereby exposing her private agenda as well as the fact she used her newspaper for it) came out, guns blazing and knives sharpened. Even the francophone politicians felt that this was a bridge too far. ?We use the media for our agenda, not the other way around’ was the message when a francophone politician said that ?Le Soir is not making policy in this country’. As it stands and as I’m writing this, a mere few hours after Van Rompuy’s acceptance speech, this issue is only now starting to become the hot potato which could land this country in another crisis, at a time it needs it the least.

One last fait divers about Hermie’s run up to the presidency : those pesky British tabloids, in their usual fashion – tits on Page3, filth and smut in the rest of the paper – ran increasingly negative stories about Van Rompuy. His sister – a very red socialist (ex- communist party PvdA) politician of her own – allegedly said he was a clown, hadn’t spoken to him in over a year, and so on. Which wasn’t true. The red nose was a campaign stunt of PvdA, and they had spoken just a week ago, she countered only hours ago on a talk show. So where did the British press get all this misinformation from? You’ll never believe it : a BELGIAN lobby firm, represented by a nephew of ex- PM and former EU Chairman hopeful Guy Verhofstadt. While Verhofstadt himself was probably not behind this vicious attack, his nephew had no qualms about feeding these stories, even when untrue, to the British public ?because that’s what the media wants to run’. Can I come out and say in no uncertain terms that such morally challenged ratbags (I’ll keep it civilised) like these should be sentenced to a life of forced labour without the possibility of parole, while being prison bitch to a 300 pound serial rapist with severe halitosis (sorry, couldn’t help myself in the end)?

So, my EU friends, now he’s been elected unanimously, what can you expect of your president, Herman Van Rompuy? Well, he IS a consensus builder, and when it’s being said that ?if he can hold a country like Belgium together, he’ll certainly be able to do the same with the 27 EU countries’, you should take that seriously, because he will do his darndest to put all the noses in the same direction. It’s also said he’s an EU nobody, politically speaking. Do NOT make the mistake to think Van Rompuy won’t know what he wants and he’ll be a harmless puppet to the likes of Angela ?I was in the sauna on the other side of the Wall’ Merkel and Nicholas ?I singlehandedly tore down the Berlin Wall’ Sarkozy. Some EU bobos will undoubtedly have felt this way when casting their votes and they will be sadly mistaken. Yes, he IS aloof and he only speaks when he feels it matters. No flamboyance there, but do not mistake him for a sock puppet.

What else? Well, he is a catholic and a conservative. Not necessarily negative treats, even though that makes him my political opposite. However, he’s also an intellectual who several times spoke out against what he calls ?direct democracy’; aka the will of the people via binding referenda. His reasoning was that constituents could not be trusted with this power, hence they needed elected representatives like him, who would decide what was best for them. This was many years ago, but it stayed with me because it incensed me to no end. If people do not know how to wield democracy, it is, in my opinion, not the task of the elected representatives to make up their minds for them, but to teach them how to wield that power effectively. Not so for Van Rompuy, and I was sorely disappointed when not a single journalist drove this issue home when he was about to take over as PM from Leterme. The fact that he was a consensus builder and didn’t really want the job took precedence over that.

In closing : no matter what his qualities may be, Herman Van Rompuy is very much a politician’s politician, and that, too, will have been a reason why he was elected by his peers (!) as EU Council president for the next two and a half years. The only hope I have for this presidency is that Herman Van Rompuy will learn as much about direct democracy as he will be teaching us about intereuropean consensus. Time will tell…

— dr. Arf

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

15 thoughts on “How Europe Got A Belgian Council President (Guest Post By Dr. Arf)”

  1. Thanks for this informative post, dr. Arf. So we’re all in for a surprise, eh? Fingers crossed. To large extent, the future and role of the new offices will depend on what their current incumbents shape them into. I must admit, however, that I agree to a large extent with Van Rompuy’s opinion on referenda. You should come over for a beer and a debate.

  2. @ Dr. Fil : Coming over for a beer and a debate? Sounds good! It’s high time I made it over to Letzeburg anyway. 🙂

  3. I absolutely agree with Van Rompuy’s stance on referendums as well. Not in 100% of cases – there are some legitimate ones – but the vast majority of things likely to come up in a referendum are ‘controversial’ issues that affect a minority, and the majority should absolutely not have a say in that. Elected representatives are there to do their job, not dodge responsibility by having sham referendums.

    I think personally that the Council’s decisions are quite good. A fairly low-key but efficient president of the Council will be good for the legislative process, and will also allow the Commission President to be the real ‘President of the EU’. Since the Commission tends to be a lot more sensible than the Council of Ministers, and has more democratic legitimacy by being appointed and overseen by the Parliament, that’s got my full support.
    And Catherine Ashton is very nice and one of the few pro-European Brits, so if it had to be a Brit because of back-room deals, I’m happy it’s her.

  4. @ Alex : If referendum issues are not legitimate or even ‘controversial’, it is because the elected representatives draft them up that way. So they’re actually sabotaging the referendum system in order to retain their own power, rather than teaching their constituents to handle their democratic responsibilities, eh, responsibly and contribute to the democratic principle. I believe, when taught to handle this responsibility, the constituents can actually help their representatives do their jobs right and can act as a form of control on the government. Utopian, perhaps, but it’s the way I see things. I suspect we’ll agree to disagree on that, as I’m a staunch supporter of the freedom and especially the equality of the individual. I don’t need a politician to tell me what’s right or wrong for me because I think (therefore I am) and can form an opinion. People should not be treated like cattle or toddlers who need to be led by a cattle prod or an ‘adult’s’ guiding hand, they should be taught to become integrated individuals, who can form their own opinions intelligibly and intelligently. But that, of course, is the fear of all politicians, because it would seriously curb their power and influence.

  5. Absolutely, *you* don’t need a politician to tell you what’s right and wrong – but most people are idiots and they *do* need someone to tell them just that. You can think – but most people don’t tend to bother to.

    And it may well be that many people are simply misinformed (perhaps by the wonderful British media, ha!), or ignorant, but unless something actually affects someone personally, they’re quite unlikely to care enough to invest the time to form a reasoned and coherent opinion. And, in many respects, they shouldn’t need to: politicians are paid good sums to do just that in a professional capacity, just so that ‘regular’ people don’t need to and can do other productive things with their time. It’s just division of labour, surely.

    I can definitely agree with you that it would be wonderful if people could be trusted to do the right thing: but a quick glance at virtually any news site which allows commenting (e.g. the ‘Have Your Say’ on BBC News) is ample proof that a large proportion of people should probably not be allowed to vote, much less decide on issues in referendums!

    Writing to your MP/MEP or the government is all that is needed to produce change. If enough people care about an issue, it should send a clear signal to the government to act on it if they want to remain in power. And if people don’t care enough to write to their government, then they probably shouldn’t be deciding on the issue to begin with.

    I believe changing the electoral system to single transferable voting or something similar would greatly enhance the democratic accountability of the elected politicians, since they couldn’t hide behind their party line. Furthermore, it would allow anyone with a particular interest in an issue to stand for parliament and actually have a realistic chance of being elected and doing something about it if, again, enough people care about it. I’d support something like that in lieu of referendums.

  6. Well, you made some very good points there, Alex. Yes, I know by and large the masses that make up society indulge in a ‘sit back, do nothing and complain’ attitude. I’m with you on that. On the other hand, in a country like mine, which is tearing itself apart at its regional seams – an issue I believe Slovenians are all too familiar with viz. the breakup of Yugoslavia – one can’t not have an opinion about politics. The situation here is so dire, it is forcing my countrymen and women, from the university professor to the rack filler at the local supermarket, to have one. And yes, everyone should be productive in their own line of work or interest, but government policy affects us all, so we should have our say, and not just every four years. Writing an MP or MEP… It sounds good in theory, but letters or mails can be easily ignored. A referendum, when properly arranged and clear and concise information about the issue(s) at hand made available, could be sending the government a bigger signal than individual letters ever could. But I’m not naive enough to believe that system is fool proof (or idiot proof, for that matter ;-)) either.

    Also, where politicians in the past at least carried the pretense that they were statesmen, we now notice they have become more like bar room brawlers, who are rolling into the street, fighting dirty. The amount of public attacks and personal scores that are being settled through the media have gone through the roof in the past two years in this country. The result was that there was no government to speak of while our elected representatives continually behaved like petty children in a school playground. Is that the kind of elected representation you want? I certainly don’t. They’ve stooped down to the level of the uninformed commentators you so aptly describe.

    But perhaps what I derive mostly from your reply, is that constituents get the government they deserve. Alas, for my schizophrenic motherland, that means we have a schizophrenic form of government, with five parliaments, which makes it increasingly impossible for any federal government team to function efficiently. Van Rompuy, as an ‘old school’ politician, had the ‘quiet determination’ (a direct quote) to make everyone toe the line, even though the balance of his first and last year as Belgium’s PM is only marginally positive. At least he got the cabinet parties to behave like real representatives instead of whining territorial children for a change. That is why I say it makes sense that it is he who has become EU President, no matter how limited his influence on the EU Assembly may be.

    Changing the electoral system to single transferable voting is certainly an interesting idea, but I think that, too, would be prone to flaws and abuse, although it would certainly bring democracy closer to the people if, as you say, they care enough.

    I also just remembered that you come from a country where the electional voting system is optional, whereas in Belgium, voting is mandatory. That in itself results in a difference of perspectives…

  7. Dr Arf: Thanks for your long reply. It was very interesting to read.

    It’s unfortunate that Belgian politicians aren’t very mature, and I can understand that with that kind of representation, you feel a bit cheated and would prefer to take matters into your own hands. It’s very sad that this should be the case, and it’s surprising that fewer sensible people decide to be politicians. (Sensible for politicians, at least.)

    That’s probably quite a problem in small countries, where the choice of candidates isn’t that great. Really, we should stop playing games and finally just scrap national parliaments and just have the European Parliament + regional parliaments for local issues. That way there’d be lots of talent to pool into the European Parliament. 🙂

    And I still find it appalling that the Flemish and the Walloons can’t get on. Right at the heart of Europe, too!

    I can understand that more people are politically engaged in Belgium, which is great – but just having an opinion about something doesn’t mean you can realistically make a reasonable choice about concrete implementations of legislation. Unless you’re willing to believe that professional politicians don’t do anything all day long, and that we could do their job in addition to our own?

    It depends a lot on what kind of referendum you’re arguing for. The dry implementation of safety standards for paints used on bicycles – well, I doubt anyone cares enough other than bicycle factories. You clearly can’t have referendums on tax, otherwise you end up like broke California. And referendums on whether single women should be able to undergo in vitro fertilisation, or whatever the ridiculous referendum was in Slovenia back in the day – that kind of thing should NOT be decided via referendums as a matter of principle.

    What kind of thing do you think might be suitable for a popular vote? I can sort of understand Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, although it was clear that the people didn’t bother to investigate what they were voting on, instead punishing the government of the day for something totally unrelated, or ‘because they didn’t understand the treaty’, as some said, or, in the second referendum, they voted because they were scared of the economic consequences of voting ‘no’ again. Really, asking the people to vote on complex documents like that is just plain silly, as they won’t take their responsibility seriously!

    Regarding letters – yes, absolutely, they ignore almost every letter or email in Slovenia in my experience. I would guess that if enough letters were sent, though, they might actually do something about it. But here in the UK, they’re fairly good at replying. Most MPs also have a weekly surgery in their constituency, where you can go and discuss pretty much anything with your MP. And they do then ask these questions in Westminster during the Prime Minister’s Question Time, for example. Similar arrangements are in place for MEPs. So it does work, at least here it does.
    Of course the major issue here is the first past the post system, which means you only get to vote on the entire manifesto of, in essence, the three parties that have a realistic chance of making it to parliament. Any other vote is a vote wasted, and single-issue candidates are pretty hopeless.
    That kind of thing is much better on the Continent, where at least some method of proportional representation is in place; but STV would be the best in my opinion (quite difficult to count votes though!).
    (Admittedly you get the radical parties that way too, e.g. the BNP and UKIP at the European Parliament election, which is proportional in the UK. There wasn’t a major increase in their vote actually – they simply don’t make it ‘first past the post’ to make it to Parliament in General Elections.)
    Hmm, maybe Belgium would do better with FPTP though, if all they do is haggle at the moment. You can absolutely make a strong government with FPTP – but I tend to be quite wary of strong governments!
    (Compulsory voting is a very strange concept. Forcing people to exercise their freedom of suffrage? How quaint. Should people really have a say if they can’t be bothered to vote without such strong incentives?)

    Anyway, I personally don’t think there is much use in referendums. There *might* be some referendums that are justifiable (e.g. entering the EU or very local referendums about topical issues), but in general I’d say it’s far too dangerous to let the people decide on important issues, when in every likelihood they won’t be voting on the issues per se, but rather the popularity of those advocating either option, or some totally tangential aspect, or will just be voicing their prejudices.

    It’s very unfortunate if your politicians are also rubbish, but I don’t think referendums would improve anything much. Maybe it’s time you ran for parliament, Dr Arf?

    And I should stress that I’m not against personal freedom or the equality of individuals (I’m not sure if that’s the implication when I say I don’t believe in direct democracy!) – I just, very pragmatically, don’t think referendums do much good.

  8. Likewise, thanks for the elaborate reply to my elaborate reply, Alex. 😉

    Yes, it is unfortunate that politicians behave that immature. Because in the end those who end up with the short end of the stick are their constituents. And it does nothing to get the Flemings and Walloons closer (which is something certain politicians on both sides of the Language Border are happy about). And therein lies the whole problem : the federalisation of this country was necessary when it happened back in the 80’s, but it created a regionalisation where each region became increasingly more self absorbed. Another problem is that the Walloon government has relied on Flemish money for too long to let their policy of ‘laissez faire, laissez passer’ go on. It’s sad that it took real nationalistic tendencies – policy wise – in Flanders to wake them up and start to act for themselves, but still that horse trading attitude is prevalent whenever the Flemish parties want an agreement on something, which in a lot of cases deals with the suburbs surrounding Brussel, which are Flemish, but are inhabited by Francophones who refuse to adapt to living in Flanders and demand special privileges (while the same is refused to Flemings who would chose to live in Wallonia). You can read about all that in my previous guest post series.

    Going for a EU parliament plus regional parliaments is a good idea, but if your country can’t be considered one region because it consists of two regions who are locked in a constant battle for the capital and its suburbs, which historically and territorially belong to one region, but are inhabited increasingly by citizens from the other who don’t want to integrate (which they do expect on both sides from immigrants, ironically), you have very long and tough divorce proceedings on your hands in the best case and the makings of a civil war in the worst. And I don’t need to tell you what the latter means, I’m sure…

    It saddens me too that we can’t get along. To me, it’s a simple question of common decency and respect. Yes, we should have solidarity towards each other’s region. But, unfortunately – and I really mean that, the Wallonian politicians don’t see it that way. If you would live in a country or a region where they speak another language and have a different culture (even though these differences are minute, as opposed to, say, muslims who immigrate into Western Europe), I’m sure you would adapt. It is, so many botched attempts aside, still my intent to move to Slovenija. And while everyone there is very forthcoming and happy to speak English with me, I want to be able to communicate with them in their own language and learn the lay of the land so I can integrate better. Francophones don’t have that sensibility, although I must admit that most Walloons outside of the Brussel region are now making an effort where they wouldn’t 20 – 30 years ago. But those who already have special privileges and live in Brussel or its suburbs are very arrogant and refuse to adapt to living in Flanders out right. And they are backed by Francophone politicians who of course want to maintain that electoral foothold. It is, I feel, a continued show of disdain and disrespect, even though I myself and far from a Flemish nationalist. It’s more a case of ‘I’d do it because it’s the right thing to do, so why won’t you?’

    You’re right, having an opinion doesn’t automatically suit you for the political trade. And one would have to choose the referendum issues carefully and represent them impartially. The referendum in Ireland about the Lisbon treaty actually illustrated to a tee how it shouldn’t be organised. If referendums are just another way to campaign for the popular vote and hence distort the voter’s information to suit ones party political stance, I feel they’re missing their point entirely. Unfortunately, that’s the way they’re set up and that’s why I said that politicians abuse that system in order to retain their power. This kind of abuse invites the voter to, as you say, punish the government. Once again, it’s all about clear and concise information being made available and presented in a neutral way, with all pros and cons listed. While I agree with you that there are a lot of idiots out there, I do want to give most people more credit and say that if well informed, they can actually make an informed decision, in spite of my own misanthropic nature.

    The example you gave about the bicycle paint is a perfect illustration about what irritates people so much about EU regulation. The EU is being viewed as irrelevant because of laws like these. Another good one, which was reversed not too long ago : the size and shape of cucumbers. If that’s the kind of regulation the EU parliament busies itself with, it’s not hard to understand why people have lost faith in Europe as a unified political entity and why they view their MEP’s and all the other EU bureaucrats as being paid for being lazy with the EU tax payers’ money. Hence, they aren’t taking the EU seriously anymore, but rather view it as a nuissance that complicates their lives by passing irrelevant laws. I feel there’s a real task for the LOCAL governments to explain what the EU does efficiently a

  9. Sorry, I tapped the wrong key. I’ll continue…

    I feel there’s a real task for the LOCAL governments to explain what the EU does efficiently and beneficially for their constituents. But that has a long way to go.

    We did have a system in place where local MP’s received constituents, but it became a system of clientelism. Votes were cast, not on policy, but on how many favours a local politician could be wrangled out of. Needless to say, that system went the way of the dodo by and large. Hence, the constituents’ questions never reach parliament but the, they never really did. I think the size of the U.K. actually plays in favour of such a system, whereas it does much less in countries like Belgium.

    The system of compulsory voting does leave a lot to be desired. One of the arguments is that if it would be binned, voting would work in favour of extreme right wing parties such as Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interests/Importance, our BNP), because they are a lot stronger in rallying their grass roots supporters to vote. That in itself should tell you something about the state of political Belgium. It’s not in the state of Denmark where there is something rotten anymore…

    While I do agree caution must be maintained at all times in regard to referendum subjects, and I do agree that, at this point in time, people by and large lack the proficiency to vote without prejudice, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t be taught. It would take a lot of time and a change in the way referendums are presented, as I’ve illustrated before, but I believe that over time, it could be done. And that’s the point I’ve been trying to make all along. Educate, rather than impose.

    Me, running for office? Surely you are jesting, my dear Alex. While I have a – hopefully informed – opinion about politics and government and EU policy, I could never run for office, because I’m just not built that way. I could never adhere to a party’s ideology and sacrifice my own in favour of it. I couldn’t engage in the cattle trading politicians have to on a daily basis. It would break my heart and rob me of my soul. I am, have been, and always will be a musician and a hopeless romantic. Bad qualities in the political trade, I’m sure you agree. 😉

  10. My apologies, I can’t write a proper reply at the moment: have lots of marking to do tonight – my students are also idiots, or lazy, it’s hard to tell which.
    But thanks again for the response – it was a very interesting read.

    It’s just my point though that you shouldn’t need to be in a party to run for parliament, or toe the party line, or whatever. I think the fact that all our politics is in fact party politics is a very sad state of affairs – it would be much better if individuals with their own opinions could be voted in (and called to responsibility if they fail to deliver), rather than party leaders and whips setting the agenda. But that’s not very likely to happen any time soon …
    Being a romantic and being disinclined to back room deals are excellent qualities in a politician. It’s just a shame so few have them!

    Do you think, if people could be taught to vote without prejudice, that we’d need referendums at all? Surely if that were possible, the politicians could come to the right conclusion all on their own?

    I reckon we can agree that our viewpoints aren’t really that different at all: we just have slightly different ideas about what’s achievable and what isn’t (and I fear that neither of us is a realist!). 🙂

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