"There's no problem with German leadership"

Belgium: A microcosm of European issues and challenges. Thore Barfuss and Alexandra Schade talked with the former Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme about Europe, separationist tendencies, and institutional crises.

The European: Mr. Leterme, what do Belgians think about Europe and the European Union?
Leterme: Belgium is one of the most pro European countries. This is due to the fact that it is one of the founding members and at the center of the European Union. Belgium has one of the most open economies in the world: It is home to many multi-national companies and the port of Antwerp is one of the busiest in the world. Besides that, there is the presence of the European institutions with thousands of civil servants and all kinds of lobby groups.

The Europe: Europe is popular?
Leterme: I think Europe is still reasonably popular – although the Flemish nationalists and the extreme right wing party have cultivated some kind of euro skepticism to help differentiate themselves from other parties.

The European: Like the EU, Belgium has to deal with separatist tendencies. The UK even thinks about leaving the EU.
Leterme: You have to make a distinction: On the one hand, there are member states that don’t feel completely at home within the EU. The political leadership of the UK has created that problem. And the EU has to react to that. On the other hand, the regional factor has become more dynamic in many countries – in Spain, the UK, and even in France, not just in Belgium.

The European: It might be easier for the UK to leave the EU…
Leterme: I am not totally convinced that it would be easy for the UK to leave the EU.

The European: But the country is openly talking about it.
Leterme: 50 percent of the UK’s exports are to other EU countries. If the UK were to leave the club, different trade rules would apply, and this would be a disaster for the country and its citizens.

The European: How do you deal with separatist tendencies in Belgium? The country has faced a lot of inner-state crises within the last ten years, its unity has become fragile.
Leterme: I would not say that Belgium is at the brink of a real separation. Even the Flemish nationalists aim more at what they call “confederalism” than at the independence of Flanders. Nevertheless, I think it is a matter of concern and there is the tendency to break solidarity with the other regions in the country and with the other countries in the EU. And this pressure put on solidarity is a problem.

The European: This lack of solidarity and unity in Belgium was of personal concern to you, as you acted as caretaker Prime Minister for the world record time of over a year in 2010, the parties failing to form a government. How did that happen?
Leterme: As you mentioned before, Belgium has been going through a difficult period for seven or eight years now. Since the 1960s we had six state reforms in a row. That always meant devolution of powers to the regions and communities. After every federal election the issue of distributing powers and competences is put on the table. As a consequence, there is a constant institutional crisis.

The European: Will there be a new Belgian crisis after the next federal election?
Leterme: It is always difficult to predict the future. As Churchill said: “A week is a long time in politics.” We are now talking about one and a half years. As the dynamics are, there will probably be one important Flemish party – and convincing it to take part in negotiations to form a government is going to be difficult. The question is, how the other parties will handle this kind of situation.

The European: How would a new Belgian crisis add to the European crisis that we face now?
Leterme: It would not be so important. When it comes to Europe and European integration, there is a consensus in Belgium. Belgium is part of the EU and it is necessary to strengthen the institutions and the Eurozone. The skepticism is not about the principles, but more about questions like: Do we need all this bureaucracy? Is it really necessary to show solidarity with countries that do not deserve it?

The European: What role does King Albert II play?
Leterme: He is a highly respected personality. The royal family as a whole is well accepted and one of the things that hold the people together.

The European: Do you think that Europe needs a figure like that?
Leterme: We had that debate while preparing the Convention on the Future of Europe. The decisions have been made and we now have a highly complex European institutional framework. This aims to provide a good equilibrium between the member states and European integration – but this equilibrium is very fragile. Opening a new debate about having a European president similar to the United States’ President is neither fruitful nor would it have much added value. Europe should concentrate on tackling other problems, for instance the position of the European economy on a global level or defending the welfare state.

The European: Herman van Rompuy is one of the people that are representing the EU already. In Germany, he is often criticized for not being loud enough.
Leterme: I think Herman van Rompuy is doing the job the way the European leaders expected when they appointed him. They wanted someone strong enough to make compromises but not too dominant on the international scene. He should be leaving enough space for the German Chancellor, the French President, the UK Prime Minister and others to have their say.

The European: A lot of people think that because of its economic and political power Germany is already taking up too much space in Europe. Others ask for German leadership in this European crisis. What is your opinion on that?
Leterme: I have taken part in lots of crucial debates in the European Council. When you are gathered with 27 heads of states and governments, it is clear that you cannot start a meeting like this: “First point on the agenda: European Banking Union. Who says what?” Not even when the meeting is chaired by a brilliant personality like Herman van Rompuy! You have to prepare behind the scenes, and this is where leadership develops. Obviously, the leaders of a country like Germany – with the highest population and largest economy in Europe – has a very important role to play.

The European: In Germany, it is rather an ideological debate instead of a rational one. Is this leading role of Germany a problem in Belgium?
Leterme: It depends on what part of the country you live in. The Walloon people clearly know more about what is happening in France. The Flemish part of the country is more oriented towards Germany and the Netherlands. But generally speaking, Germany and its leader Angela Merkel are highly respected in Belgium. I don’t think there is a problem with Germany showing leadership.

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