Debating EU enlargement – Belgium
Schaarbeek houses, Brussels. Photo: flickr/MorBCN

On 1 July 2010 Belgium assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union. What is the likely impact of this on the South East European enlargement process?

To help answer this question, and to provide a guide through the maze of Belgian institutions and coalition politics, ESI has produced a new analytical manual on the Belgian enlargement debate.

The manual, downloadable in PDF format, looks at different institutions, Belgian constitutional reforms of the past 40 years, and recent elections. It is intended to serve as a tool for practitioners who wish to understand Belgian attitudes towards enlargement and to interact with the key individuals dealing with this topic. It describes relevant key people and institutions, the main political actors from the federal and regional levels, the Belgian media, think-tanks based in Brussels, NGOs and academia. It is part of ESI’s efforts to broaden the debate on EU enlargement, supported generously by Erste Foundation in Vienna.

July 2010

ESI Manual: The Belgian EU enlargement debate (July 2010)

Find below a few excerpts from the 82-page manual:

Belgium’s complexity

Some say Belgium boasts “Europe’s most baffling multi-layered system of government”; others go so far as to say that it is a “dreamt-up country, driven by a quixotic ambition to keep the dream alive, to try and overcome division and plurality with a continuous search for compromise and consensus. There are also those who predict Belgium’s eventual disintegration and split into two parts, one Walloon and one Flemish.

Since 1970, five waves of constitutional reforms have turned Belgium into a highly decentralised country whose complex structures only constitutional lawyers understand in all detail; no level of Belgian government or Belgian political party can do without these legal experts nowadays.

However, this is not to say that government runs smoothly in Belgium. It took more than six months to form an interim government following the last national elections in June 2007, and nine months elapsed before the final government took office – only to fall twice since. Its second collapse in April 2010 led to new federal elections on 13 June 2010.

Voters rebuffed the five-party coalition in power, now in a care-taker function, which is made up mainly of Flemish and Walloon Liberal and Christian-Democratic parties. Instead, they elected a new party propagating Flemish independence in Flanders and the Socialist Party in Wallonia (even when electing the federal parliament, voters in Flanders can only vote for parties registered in Flanders and Walloon voters elect Walloon parties; only the residents of Brussels-Capital have a choice).

It now will take a while to form a new coalition, which means that Belgium’s Presidency of the European Union began on 1 July 2010 under a care-taker government. One of the major stumbling blocks during the last three years has been the status of the electoral district Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, over which Belgium’s Walloons (4 million) and Flemish (6 million) are at loggerheads. This issue will be on the table, as will further constitutional reform to meet the demands of the Flemish for more autonomy.

The 13 June 2010 general elections

On 13 June 2010, early federal elections were held in Belgium following the collapse of the government in April 2010. The big winner was the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie – N-VA) led by Bart De Wever. It won 27 seats in the 150-seat Chamber of Representatives, the lower house of the federal parliament. Roughly a third of all Flemish voted for the N-VA.

The big question is now whether De Wever and Di Rupo can change tack. Peter Vandermeersch, editor-in-chief of the Flemish daily De Standaard, wrote about this issue:

“De Wever, who wants to reform the country, and Di Rupo, who wants to save it: at first sight, a strange couple. Di Rupo, the son of a poor immigrant and likely to be the first Francophone prime minister since Leburton [prime minister in 1973/74]. De Wever, a historian who grew up in a nationalist-Flemish environment and who is to play an important role in the renewal of Belgium. If these two manage to understand each other, our country will slowly come out of the institutional doldrums into which it has been sinking. If they do not understand each other, we can expect chaos.”

New Flemish Alliance – Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie

The Nieuw-Vlammse Alliantie (N-VA) was founded in autumn 2001, as a successor of the Flemish Volksunie, a party that brought together Flemish nationalists and then split up in a more conservative party – the N-VA – and a more left-oriented wing. The N-VA described itself as a democratic Flemish nationalist party which strives for an independent Flanders as a member of the European Union. In the 2010 elections, it won around a third of the votes in Flanders and became the strongest party in Belgium.

The party’s slogan during the 2010 election campaign was “Now dare change”. It advocated a confederal form of government in Belgium, but stressed that this would be achieved through negotiations with the Francophones. Major themes of the campaign included increased fiscal and financial autonomy for Flanders, the need to reduce Belgium’s public debt, the adoption of “a strict but fair asylum policy, with faster procedures and a genuine return policy” (with the Francophones being blamed for having opened the door to immigration and expecting Flanders to pay for them), job creation, and the preservation of the social safety net. For that purpose, the N-VA claims the creation of a “Flemish Republic, as a member state of a democratic European confederation” and calls the existing Federal government to “evaporate.”

Regarding the EU and enlargement, the N-VA states that it strives for EU membership for Flanders since it considers the European Union the most appropriate macro-level and Flanders the most appropriate micro-level.  “We believe in a Europe of nations,” it states on its website. “For the N-VA, respect for the diversity of languages and cultures in Europe is very important.”

The party opposes “a new (wild) enlargement of the EU.” It states that it prioritises “the deepening and further development of high-quality European institutions”. It is clearly against Turkey’s membership and instead advocates a privileged partnership with Turkey. In an interview, Frieda Brepoels, a member of the European Parliament from the N-VA, explains:

“We were against the entry of Turkey from the start, for several reasons. There, we differ from Vlaams Belang, because they focus on the Islamic religion. Religion for us is not important, because that’s an individual issue, but we think that after the enlargement of Europe with ten, twelve new members, we first have to work on integration.

“We want Europe not only as an economic area but also a Europe of a political union. We want more Europe, a stronger Europe, on asylum, defence, energy and foreign affairs. It’s very difficult to take decisions in Europe because the countries are not on the same level of economic clout. We need much more integration of the European Union, not expansion. Instead of further enlargement, we want a deepening of the EU. We have to work on that for the next decade.

“Turkey is a huge country, and if it entered it would straight away be the biggest country of the EU with all the consequences for this in the EU institutions.  The financial consequences are gravely underestimated. If you look at the Agriculture policy, with Turkey it is impossible – when you see that the EU has to organise everything with only 1 % of GDP, it’s impossible. The moment that you say that Turkey is welcome in the EU, then that means that you need to be able to double the financial budget.”

Socialist Party – Parti Socialiste

The Socialist Party of Wallonia has been the dominant party in Wallonia for decades. The 2010 federal elections re-affirmed its leadership: the SP won most votes in Wallonia and became the second-strongest party in Belgium, right after the N-VA. Its representatives also head the governments of the Regions of Wallonia and Brussels-Capital, and of the French and German-speaking Communities. The PS main message during the 2010 elections was “A stable country and sustainable jobs.

The party was founded in 1885 as the Parti ouvrier belge or, in Dutch, Belgische Werkliedenpartij (Belgian Workers’ Party). Following a few name changes and a split into a Francophone and a Dutch party of the same kind in 1972, it became the PS in Wallonia. There is a German section in eastern Belgium. The Flemish counterpart of the PS is called Socialistische Partij – Anders (Socialist Party – Differently), but it has never been as strong in Flanders as the PS in Wallonia.

Concerning EU enlargement, the PS is in favour of pursuing the process with a few qualifiers:

“Enlargement is undoubtedly the most powerful tool used by Europe. […] The acceptance of the Balkan countries, as long as they meet the Copenhagen criteria […] and the requirements of the International Criminal Tribunal, responds to the need for stability in the immediate vicinity of Europe. But citizens for whom geo-strategic and security considerations are often distant, sometimes fear a lax attitude towards admissions and internal disruptions as a result of an enlargement of Europe that is too fast. They are right. This is why the PS insists on:

– absolute respect of the Copenhagen criteria;

– absorption capacity, as regards both the institutional dimension (an efficient and democratic functioning of the European Union) and from an economic and social perspective so that the EU’s cohesion policy can be applied to the newcomers and that the European social model does not suffer from it;

– rejection of any negative decision in response to an application for EU membership that would be based on cultural or religious considerations.”

Contact: General Secretariat, Boulevard de l’Empereur 13, 1000 Brussels, T +32 (2) 254 3223,,

Belgian print media

The print media scene in Belgium has two main features. One is the linguistic division into the three official languages of the country: French, the main language of some 40% of the population; Dutch, the primary language of around 60%; and German, the language of preference of around 1% of the population. Second, for a country of almost 11 million people, the print media is also surprisingly parochial. European and foreign news, sometimes even national news, play a subordinate role. Papers focus on regional and local news. Jean-Michel de Waele, a professor of political sciences at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, described the situation in a recent interview:

“The Belgian press is poor, it has little means, and it is also very local. For an expat to read the Belgian press won’t provide him with much information about the main trends in Belgium. It is also no coincidence that a large part of the [Belgian] intellectuals read international papers in Belgium. At my university, Le Monde is read a lot. The Belgian press is very communal. If you want to know what is happening in the street of your neighbour, yes, then read the Belgian press.”

There are 23 daily newspapers, but some present only slightly modified local editions of the same paper; if these are disregarded, there are 15 daily newspapers. Only a few newspapers have a circulation of above 100,000, and almost all of them are focusing on domestic news, especially regional and local news.

Belgian daily newspapers

Belgian newspapers that put an emphasis on European and international news reporting – the Flemish De Standaard and the Francophone Le Soir and La Libre Belgique – have generally fewer readers than papers of a more regional and local character. Higher-circulation dailies such as the Flemish Het Laatste Nieuws (liberal) and Het Nieuwsblad and their local editions in Antwerp and Gent, respectively, focus on domestic affairs, and so do the newspapers of the Sud Presse Group on the Francophone side: their papers are distributed in the main cities of the Walloon Region, and they mainly deal with local news.

Circulation of Belgian dailies in 2009:


Het Laatste Nieuws /De Nieuwe Gazet

(“The Latest News” and “The New Gazette”, its Antwerp edition)


Het Nieuwsblad / De Gentenaar

(“The News paper” and “The Ghentener”, its Ghent edition)


La Meuse/La Nouvelle Gazette/La Province/ Nord Eclair/La Capitale (Sud Presse)

(“The Meuse”, “The New Gazette”, “The Province”, “Northern Flash”, “The Capital” – one newspaper with different local editions)


Gazet Van Antwerpen (“Antwerp Gazette”)


Het Belang Van Linburg (“The Linburg Interest”)


Groupe Vers L’Avenir (“Group Towards the Future”)


De Standaard (“The Standard”)


Le Soir (“The Evening”)


La Libre Belgique (“Free Belgium”)


De Standaard1.GIFDe Standaard (“The Standard”) is a Dutch-language broadsheet founded in 1918 as a conservative paper upholding Catholic values. It has a circulation of 93,000 copies. Though De Standaard was closely connected with the Flemish Christian Democratic Party, today it is attempting to be politically more neutral. It is considered the main quality newspaper in Flanders.


The head of the foreign desk is Bart Beirland, and he is also the journalist dealing with the Western Balkans ( In 2008, just before Kosovo declared its independence, he personally wrote a blog on Kosovo ( Evita Neefs ( reports on EU events, while Annelien De Greef ( covers European affairs for the economic desk. In 2008 she was the Belgian winner of the European Commission’s European Young Journalist Award for stories on enlargement. Her article told the stories of three people whose lives were changed by the EU.

Contact: De Standaard, Gossetlaan 28, 1702 Groot-Bijgaarden, T +32 (2) 467.2705,

Le Soir is the most widely read Francophone quality newspaper in Belgium. It is progressive, interested in the social and political advancement of the society, and politically neutral. Distributed for the first time in 1887, it now has a circulation of 83,000 copies. main journalist covering European issues is Maroun Labaki (, in the picture on the left). He also writes about conditions in the Middle East. Pascal Martin ( and Philippe Reigner ( also follow enlargement and EU foreign policy.

Le Soir has opened a blog about the forthcoming Belgian Presidency of the EU, titled « L’Europe à l’heure Belge – Compte à rebours vers la Presidence Belge de l’Union Europeenne » (“Europe at the Belgian hour – Countdown towards the Belgian Presidency of the EU”).

Contact: Le Soir, Rue Royale 100, 1000 Brussels, T +32 (2) 225 5432,

Civil Society, Academia and Other Interest Groups

There are a high number of think-tanks and political institutes in Belgium. Since Brussels is the seat of the main European Union institutions and NATO, most of these institutes are based there. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these organisations are not Belgian, but European and international. They focus on analysing and debating EU policies.

King Baudouin Foundation

The King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) is a Belgian public benefit foundation. It describes itself as “an independent and pluralistic foundation that pursues sustainable ways to bring about justice, democracy, and respect for diversity.” Its budget in 2010 is 30 million Euro, of which 85% is spent on projects and 15% of administration and management.

KBF focuses on a variety of issues and supports projects in Belgium and internationally. It works and co-operates with different partners, including research centres, think-tanks, governmental institutions, NGOs, companies and foundations.

Apart from supporting third-party projects, the KBF organises colloquia and round-table discussions, publishes extensively, and promotes “philanthropy”, notably through its Centre for Philanthropy. Its tackles 11 thematic areas: Poverty and Social Justice; Democracy in Belgium; Democracy in the Balkans; Heritage; Philanthropy; Health; Leadership; Local Engagement; Migration; Development; and Partnership/Exceptional Support for Projects.

As part of the Democracy in the Balkans programme, KBF currently supports projects that promote European integration, defend minority rights, focus on readmission and student mobility, and help victims of human trafficking. In order to be involved in the region more efficiently, the Foundation, alongside other European foundations, has co-initiated and co-financed the European Fund for the Balkans. Its partner foundations in this endeavour are Erste Stiftung from Austria, Robert Bosch Stiftung from Germany and Compagnia di San Paolo from Italy,

The person dealing with the Balkans is:

Fabrice de Kerchove – Project Manager


Examples of previous and recent projects/publications can be found here:

The KBF also has a strategic partnership with the European Policy Centre (EPC). In that respect, it co-organises the Balkan Europe Forum, an event that focuses on the perspectives and challenges arising from the Balkan countries’ accession to the EU.

General contact details:

Rue Bréderode 21, 1000 Brussels

Phone: +32 (2) 511 1840



ESI Manual: The Belgian EU enlargement debate (July 2010)