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Belgium and the European Union

Summary and Keywords

Belgium is one of the six founding members of European integration, but it is often seen as a special one. In both policy and research, the country is widely known as the “heart of Europe.” It even sells itself to the outside world in this way. This metaphor has a double meaning, a literal and a figurative one. First, Belgium’s capital, Brussels, qualifies as the unofficial capital of the European Union. This meaning is strongly supported by facts, with the city hosting the most numerous and the most important institutions. The second meaning requires more detailed consideration. Indeed, and second, Belgium is perceived to be the most European of all European countries, even prepared to exchange sovereignty for supranationalism at any time and any price. A closer look at data, decisions, and developments shows, however, that while support for European integration is widespread, it is not omnipresent either in time or in place. Particularly in Flanders, the northern part of the country, support has been less obvious than elsewhere.

Indeed, to understand Belgium and/in the European Union, one also has to understand the functioning of Belgium as a federal state composed of communities and regions, thus as a system of multilevel governance. While it is not the only federation among European Union member states, it uniquely combines a wide variety of federal characteristics. Most importantly here, the gradual process of federalization that Belgium has experienced has given the federated entities a strong voice in European Union decision-making. Member states still need to speak with one voice, however, resulting in a complex system of coordination and representation. The possibilities and realities of this system have attracted quite a lot of scholarly interest. The same goes for the rather fundamental question of whether the European Union and federated entities should be seen as unintended partners in the hollowing out of the federal state or whether the opposite holds true and the European Union is coming to Belgium’s rescue. The jury is still out on this, though the answer seems to be growing more and more complex as time passes.

Keywords: Belgium, Brussels, European Union, European Union presidency, Eurorealism, federalism, public opinion, regions, United Nations, European Union politics


This article examines Belgium’s relationship with and functioning in the European Union (EU). It focuses on the two issues that make the country unique among EU member states according to the relevant literature: its pro-European stance and its multilevel governance nature.

While both characteristics are frequently mentioned in the literature, they have not been researched with equal enthusiasm. In fact, the first characteristic, Belgium’s pro-European stance, is mostly being taken for granted. Belgium is widely seen as one of the most important supporters of European integration, even the most loyal one supporting the creation of a European federation (Deschouwer, 2012). Several interesting questions can be considered here, however: What does this image of being the champion of European integration represent? Where does it come from? And is Belgium really the beacon of light among member states, particularly in these seemingly dark times for European integration? The second characteristic, by contrast, has attracted much more scholarly attention. Scholars have asked operational questions when exploring Belgium’s functioning as a federal state of regions and communities, notably on coordination and representation. They have also asked more fundamental, even existential ones. Perhaps most importantly, should the EU and federated entities be seen as “[u]nintended partners in unravelling the Belgian state” (Swenden, 2010, p. 16) or does the EU rather come to Belgium’s “rescue” (Beyers & Bursens, 2006b, p. 1057)?

More generally, research on Belgium in/and the EU has often surfed the waves of EU policy- and decision-making (Justaert, Drieskens, Van den Brande, & Delreux, 2012).1 Key moments in European integration, such as intergovernmental conferences, have resulted in an enhanced interest in the Belgian case, as have new roles and realities, for example when Belgium assumes the EU presidency or the prospect of Brexit. While most of this research is Belgian-based, research on Belgium in/and the EU only constitutes a fraction of EU-themed research carried out in Belgium. Of course, compared with their colleagues in most other member states, EU researchers in Belgium have an important practical advantage here. They are able to conduct at least part of their research in their proverbial backyard, with the capital city of Brussels dubbed the unofficial capital of the EU, hosting the most numerous and the most important institutions. Brussels has been home to the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers for many years. More recent additions are the European Council and the European External Action Service. As such, the city rightfully qualifies as the “political and administrative heart of the EU” (Deschouwer, 2012, p. 219).

Seen in this light, it comes as no surprise that the city’s functioning as the center of EU bureaucracy is a central theme in the “first great EU novel,” that is, Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt (The Capital) (Richter, 2017). Set against the backdrop of the European Commission’s 50th anniversary celebration, this novel brings the above-mentioned Belgian traits together in a unique way. It starts out by observing that there seems to be little to celebrate, with Eurobarometer figures suggesting a historical low in public confidence in the Commission. Convinced that there is reason for celebration, however, Commission officials respond with a “Big Jubilee Project” to restore the institution’s image. It is in this context that the idea to build an official capital for the EU in Auschwitz emerges. Elegant in its simplicity, the volume’s title thus captures both the fictional plan to proclaim Auschwitz as EU capital and the rather real functioning of Brussels as unofficial one. Brussels seems particularly suited for this role, the volume argues, as it hosts a multitude of languages and institutions and, moreover, it is the capital of a “failed state” (Menasse, 2017, p. 360; own translation).

Actual Eurobarometer data paint a more differentiated picture of support for integration, though. Scores are not historically low for all indicators in all member states. Recent data show that support for the institutions is higher in Belgium than it is in most other member states, feeding into the country’s image as the “heart of Europe in every sense” (EP_President, 2018; Vertegenwoordiging van de Europese Commissie in België, 2018).2 Likewise, Menasse’s portrayal of Belgium’s functioning as a federal state seems overly dark. As most of the world knows, since “tiny Wallonia” delayed the signing of the EU–Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in October 2016, the country’s federal nature comes with complexities and uncertainties (Jenkins, 2016). But its functioning is not all doom and gloom, including in the context of the EU. In fact, by exemplifying the idea of unity in diversity, Belgium is seen as an example, even a test case, for the European project (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a; Kerremans, 2000).

The remainder of this article explores both of these characteristics in more detail, focusing on evidence, explanations, and implications. The first part explores Belgium’s image as champion of European integration. It shows that Belgian support for European integration is relatively high compared with many other member states, but also that nuance is needed. This is not so much because Brussels became the unofficial EU capital by historical accident, but rather because support for European integration has not been constant throughout the years or across the country.3 As such, this part should be read together with the second one, which concentrates on Belgium’s functioning as a federal state in European policy- and decision-making. Showing that this way of functioning can be seen in both a positive and a negative light, the second part discusses its practical and symbolic implications. The conclusion summarizes the main findings and explores the way forward.

Belgium as Pro-European Member State

Numbers and Perceptions

The most recent Eurobarometer data (at the time of writing) suggest that Belgium is one of the strongholds of European integration. Support for the European institutions is higher in Belgium than in most member states. The numbers speak for themselves. Trust in the EU institutions stands at 53%, which is no less than 12 points above the EU average of 41%. More specifically, 60% of the Belgian people declare trust in the European Parliament (EU28: 45%), 58% in the European Commission (EU28: 42%), and 52% in the European Central Bank (EU28: 39%) (Vertegenwoordiging van de Europese Commissie in België, 2018). A similar picture is seen in the data on European policies. In fact, ever higher scores can be found for support for the economic and monetary union, the common migration policy, and the common energy policy.4 Combined with a preparedness to take responsibility and make sacrifices where necessary, these numbers perpetuate the idea that the Belgians, who are known as the bravest of all Gauls since Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, are the most European of all Europeans. As such, it was no surprise that Belgium was the last country to let go of the Draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (see also “Spaak and Co.”) or that it fought hard for the idea of reducing the size of the European Commission in the context of the Lisbon Treaty (Belga/ka, 2008; Bursens & Crum, 2010). Likewise, neither was it a coincidence that Belgium was keen to step in for the United Kingdom when it became clear that the latter would give up its scheduled 2017 EU presidency to concentrate on Brexit, nor that this was considered a valid option within European circles (Belga, 2016).

As is often the case with stereotypes, this image is consistent and persistent. The perception of Belgium being the champion of European integration is also widespread in academia, where, much like in the world of policy, only superlatives seem to be appropriate to describe Belgium’s stance towards European integration. Belgium is seen as “a very good pupil in the European Union class” (Deschouwer, 2012, p. 15). Belonging to “the avant garde of federalist thinking, often outpacing the European consensus” (Mattelaer, 2017a, p. 2), it exemplifies “the ‘European’ state” (Whitman & Tonra, 2017, p. 40) and “the type of Member States that act in concert with the EU” (Coolsaet & Soetendorp, 2000, p. 142). It stands out, though, for being “the ultimate supporter of the post-war supranational European integration effort” (Coolsaet & Soetendorp, 2000, p. 142; see also Soetendorp, 1999), “the most radical in its pro-European rhetoric” (Kerremans & Beyers, 1998, p. 29), and “the most reflexively EU-oriented country of the Western European countries” (Whitman & Tonra, 2017, p. 45). Belgium seems “more European than the European Union itself” (Beyers & Kerremans, 2001, p. 126), even “more catholic than the pope” (Kerremans, 2006, p. 41).

Spaak and Co.

Certainly, the words and deeds of leading politicians and administrators both past and present feed into this image of commitment, like the sobriquets, prizes, commemorative coins, honorary doctorates, and even building names resulting therefrom (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a). Paul-Henri Spaak is the first name that should be mentioned in this regard. Spaak, whose career spanned decades and included various stints as prime and foreign minister, played an instrumental role in the creation of the Common Market in the 1950s. Drawing on his experience with the Benelux, he was able to leave his mark on both the preparatory stages (as is evident from the terms “Spaak Committee” and “Spaak Report” themselves) and the final negotiations (Laurent, 1970). This earned him the respect of many and the official title of “founding father of the EU” (European Commission, n.d.). It is, however, important to recall why Spaak opted for cooperation among European countries in the first place. Renouncing Belgium’s official policies of neutrality and independence after World War II, Spaak was indeed not driven by the lofty ideal of a European federation, but by the belief that cooperation would be a better way to protect a small country’s interests: “Just like the Lilliputians kept Gulliver from going his own way, supranationalism, in Belgian eyes, became the small member states’ best defence mechanism vis-à-vis the large ones” (Coolsaet, 2014, p. 647; own translation).5 Likewise, it is important to note that his plans faced resistance from the ruling class and/or industry (Coolsaet, 1998; Falter, 2017; Van Kemseke, 2010). This explains why the Belgian government advocated the creation of a Special Council composed of national ministers in the context of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was hesitant to join the European Defence Community (EDC), and almost failed to sign the Treaty of Rome (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a; Falter, 2017).6

While Spaak is the only Belgian that made it onto the EU’s official list of founding fathers, he is not the only one that has held the pen of European history in his hands. Looking at the first decades of integration, three additional names are worth mentioning here: Spaak’s former chef de cabinet Etienne Davignon and prime ministers Leo Tindemans and Wilfried Martens. Indeed, as director-general of the foreign ministry, Davignon supported the European project in its first steps towards foreign policy integration. He was the driving force behind the Report by the Foreign Ministers of the Member States on the Problems of Political Unification of 1970 (also known as the “Davignon Report”; Hill & Smith, 2000).7 Anticipating the enlargement from six to nine countries, the report envisaged foreign policy consultation between the European member states, reflecting on both principles and structures. Likewise, but going beyond the realm of cooperation on foreign policy matters, Tindemans presented a report on European Union (commonly called the “Tindemans Report”) a few years later, in 1976. This blueprint for cooperation included various proposals, such as the organization of direct elections for the European Parliament, yet also revealed Tindemans’ personal conviction that “Europe can only fulfil its destiny if it espouses federalism” (Tindemans, 1976, p. 5).8 It was, however, his predecessor Martens who headed the first Belgian government that explicitly supported federal cooperation on the European level, with the 1979 government agreement (“Martens I”) allowing for the transfer of competences to institutions of public international law, hence to the European institutions (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a). This document signaled an important change of course in Belgium’s European policy. Indeed, until the 1970s, political cooperation between European countries was considered far less evident than economic cooperation, particularly when implying federalism, an idea which had produced both confusion and unease (Coolsaet, 1998). The reason behind this change seems to be the emerging process of federalization within the country (see also “Belgium as Federal Member State”). But there is also the fact that Martens, having established the European People’s Party (EPP) with Tindemans in 1976, increasingly frequented European circles.9

There are also more recent names that help foster the image that Belgians are vigorous advocates of integration. Three former prime ministers stand out here: Jean-Luc Dehaene, Guy Verhofstadt, and Herman Van Rompuy (Deschouwer, 2012). All three have seen their European ambitions being questioned, even blocked, because of their association with federalism. Jean-Luc Dehaene, who served two terms as prime minister between 1992 and 1999, was responsible for guiding the country into the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) by following a strict policy of austerity. His deal-making capacities, which had also been visible during Belgium’s 1993 EU presidency, made him an ideal candidate for succeeding Jacques Delors as Commission president in 1994. Perceived as being too federalist, however, his candidacy was vetoed by the British government (Dehaene, 2012). Importantly, this veto slowed but did not stop his European career. Before he joined the European Parliament in 2004, Dehaene was vice-chairman of the European Convention that elaborated the Draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (2002–2003). The Convention originated from the Laeken Declaration, which was the capstone of Belgium’s 2001 EU presidency. In hindsight, it was only logical that Belgium’s stint was concluded in such a bold way. Then prime minister Guy Verhofstadt has advocated the creation of a “United States of Europe” for many years (Kerremans & Drieskens, 2002, 2003; Verhofstadt, 2005). In fact, this led to him suffering a similar fate as Dehaene: perceived as being too federalist, he was vetoed by the British government as Commission president in 2004.10 Likewise, Van Rompuy, Belgium’s prime minister from 2008 to 2009, faced British opposition because of his federalist views when it became clear that he was front-runner for the position of first permanent president of the European Council. This did not stop him from being appointed to the post, nor did it stop him from advocating federalism while holding it, notably in the context of the financial crisis (Barber, 2010; Dinan, 2016, 2017).

Parties and the Public at Large

With the above overview reading like a short history of European integration, it is no surprise that Belgium is perceived as a loyal supporter of European integration. Caution is needed, however. Not only has support for European integration always come less naturally to the northern part than to the southern part of the country, it seems a sign of the changing times that the largest political party in Flanders—the Flemish nationalist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (NVA; New Flemish Alliance)—has exchanged its pro-European discourse for a more eurorealist one (Brack, Wolfs, & Van Hecke, 2017; Kerremans & Beyers, 1998; Pittoors, Wolfs, Van Hecke, & Bursens, 2016; Swenden, 2010).11 The party explains this choice with the need for concrete results and democratic legitimacy (N-VA, n.d.).12 Scholars, however, see less lofty reasons. Some say CETA should be mentioned in this regard (see also “Introduction”). The initial Walloon “no” to this agreement meant that “the EU has finally entered Belgian politics and has forced other parties, in particular the N-VA, to take position on EU policies, opening the door for a Europeanized campaign of regional, national and European elections in 2019” (Bursens, 2016). Others disagree with this idea of a forced maneuver and instead see “a strategic move to own the issue in a less radical fashion,” with the party emerging as a moderate, and thus more acceptable, alternative for voters dissatisfied with European integration (Brack et al., 2017, p. 13). The reasoning here is that these voters only had one real option in the past, namely voting for the euroskeptic and radical right Vlaams Blok/Vlaams Belang (Deschouwer, 2012). Indeed, even though not all parties have unconditionally supported European integration in the past, there has been little appetite for having a debate on the merits of integration.13

If scholarly interest is a criterion, recent change seems quite fundamental here. Only a decade ago, Belgian political parties were said to agree that “the integration process is too slow, that member states retain too much power” (Deschouwer & van Assche, 2008, p. 92). European integration was “still left depoliticized” and “a vast-pro-integration consensus” was “firmly in place” (Bursens & Crum, 2010, p. 158). Compared with countries such as the Netherlands, the prospects for the adoption of a more critical attitude were “very remote” (Soetendorp, 1999, p. 41). Yet some scholars have suggested otherwise, however, pointing at challenges and change. They refer not only to the position of nationalist/regionalist parties in Flanders (Volksunie and Vlaams Blok/Vlaams Belang), but also to criticisms of the Green and Socialist parties in both parts of the country (Swenden, 2010; see also Beyers & Bursens, 2006a).14 In fact, and as confirmed by the party affiliations of the personalities discussed above, the most consistent support for European integration can be found with Christian-Democrats and Liberals, the former being the strongest advocates of integration in a federal direction, at least since the 1970s (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a).15 As such, both the past and the present invite some reservations regarding the claim that the EU and euroskepticism are “non-issues” in Belgian politics (Crespy, 2011, p. 377). While these issues may be les salient in Belgium than in many other member states, they are not non-existent.

In fact, while Eurobarometer reports for Belgium reveal high degrees of satisfaction, lower scores are reported as well. Most notably, the Belgian population is very negative about enlargement.16 Some have read these scores as evidence for the Belgian consensus on European integration having come “under challenge” (Swenden, 2010, p. 18); others go further and warn that they may even be evidence of a development “at the expense of further integration” (Bijsmans, 2017, p. 359). In any case, it should be clear that the Belgian population does not always think that “Europe is a good thing” (Deschouwer, 2012, p. 221). In fact, while being among the most pro-European ones, its public opinion is “rather critical” and “fairly volatile” (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a, pp. 94, 96; own translation). A lack of mobilization may explain why this has been barely visible. Some even question whether public opinion on European integration matters in the first place, given the elite support for integration and the lack of euroskeptic leaders (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a).

Belgium as Federal Member State

Compromise and Conflict

The Belgian state nowadays looks very different from what it was in the early days of integration. Belgium was a unitary state when signing the treaties of Paris and Rome. It was created this way in 1830 and evolved into a federal state following a phased process of state reform that started in 1970, meaning that decision-making power is no longer the prerogative of the federal institutions.17 As this process is executed “without a master plan,” nobody knows how many more rounds will follow or what the final outcome will be (Swenden, 2013, p. 374).18 Pacification has been the underlying ambition, however, aiming at peaceful coexistence between the Flemish north and the Francophone south. For the time being, Belgium is a federal state composed of three regions (Flemish Region, Walloon Region, and Brussels Capital Region) and three communities (Flemish Community, French Community, and German-speaking Community).19 Since the Maastricht Treaty, these federated entities have been empowered to represent the Belgian state at the European level for issues falling within their competences. While the principles are clear, the reality is often complex, both in terms of coordination and representation.

The literature suggests that there are two opposing ways of looking at the status quo, either positive or negative (Deschouwer, 2006, 2012). Which perspective one takes depends on which aspect one deems most important, but it also tends to be guided by normative considerations on what the future should look like (Swenden, 2013). Certainly, as is the case in Menasse’s volume, the Belgian federation can indeed be seen in terms of conflict, crisis, and failure. After almost 50 years of negotiations, “an equilibrium has not yet been found” (Deschouwer & Reuchamps, 2013, p. 268). The Belgian language border runs across the middle of the country, resulting in a deeply divided country: “Like the people of San Francisco, who know that their city is built on a deep geological fault and who realize once in a while that the foundations are not at all stable, citizens are waiting for the Belgian ‘big one’” (Deschouwer, 2012, p. 243). After all, Belgian federalism carries some important “liabilities,” such as the preservation of the system’s bipolarity, particularly through the functioning of predominantly monolingual political parties (Swenden & Jans, 2006, p. 889).

But the Belgian federation can also be seen in a more positive light, in terms of compromise and success. The system proves highly elastic, even resistant to challenge and change. Not even a world record process of 541 days of government formation following the 2010 elections has meant the end of it (Brans, Pattyn, & Bouckaert, 2016; Deschouwer & Reuchamps, 2013; Van Aelst & Louwerse, 2013; see also “Representation and Coordination.”). Seen in this light, Belgian federalism comes with some “virtues” (Swenden & Jans, 2006, pp. 888–889). Perhaps most importantly, it has proved its usefulness as a conflict-solving mechanism and has done so in a relatively cost-efficient way without increasing support for independence. In all its complexity, the Belgian system “simply works and works quite well,” creating peace and prosperity for the citizens (Deschouwer, 2012, p. 77, 2006; Hooghe, 1993; Peters, 2006). Some even say that Belgium is “better prepared” than many other European countries “for dealing with the issues raised by multi-level government” (Peters, 2006, p. 1085).

Whether positive or negative, the Belgian federation is in any case unique. Belgium is not the only federation among the EU member states nor the only one aimed at pacification. It is, however, largely perceived as a “rather extreme and complex form of federalism” (Peters, 2006, p. 1083). Besides “by default” (Belgium was not created as a federal state, but has organically grown into a federal one) and “unfinished” (the country’s final status is yet unclear), “bipolar” ranks high on the list of attributes, as do “centrifugal,” “dual,” and “consociational” (Deschouwer, 2012, pp. 74–77). Indeed, “the quarrels” between two language groups, the Flemish and the Francophones, define the country—literally as well as figuratively (Craeybeckx, Meynen, & Witte, 2009, p. 361). The cause, but also the consequence, of that is past reforms going in the same direction. Power devolves from the center to the periphery, reducing the powers of the central state and enhancing the powers of the federated entities. On paper at least, there is a clear division of power between the various levels. At the central level, there is power-sharing with veto rights for all.20

Behind the single motivation of pacification, there are “two distinct drivers” (Swenden & Jans, 2006, p. 880). The first and oldest driver, cultural autonomy, has largely motivated the northern part of the country; the second, socioeconomic autonomy, has been most important for the southern part. As a crystallization of these drivers, the constitution mentions two types of federated entities: communities and regions. The former echo Flemish concerns and follow personal logic; the latter reflect Francophone concerns and are driven by territorial logic. As such, communities are responsible for issues such as culture and education, and regions for agriculture and environment. Importantly, as territory and relations do not mirror each other, not only “double,” but also “asymmetric” and “complex” can be added to the list of characteristics of the Belgian federation (Deschouwer, 2012, pp. 76–77). Maybe the best illustration of Belgium being “a Rubik’s cube of parliamentary complexity” is the administration of languages (Morris, 2014). Here, reality is even more complex than Menasse’s volume suggests.21 There are three official languages, but four language areas. Both the Flemish and French Communities have jurisdiction over one of these areas, the bilingual Brussels–Capital Region, which consists of 19 municipalities. The complexity does not stop here, though: in border regions, inhabitants of a number of municipalities can ask for language-particular facilities, so they can use their own language when dealing with local government.

Representation and Coordination

The key point, for present purposes, is that the gradual process of federalization has given the federated entities a voice in foreign policy and, thus, that this complexity has repercussions for Belgium’s functioning in the context of the EU. Inspired by the functioning of the German Länder, a system was designed in 1994 in response to the opportunities and difficulties related to the legal principles “in foro interno, in foro externo” and “lack of hierarchy” (Kerremans, 2000). Following the first principle, internal and external competences run in parallel. This means that entities are responsible for the international aspects of those issues for which they are competent, including treaty-making powers. Following the second principle, a national law or decision cannot change a subnational one.

Focusing on coordination and representation, the system reconciles both these principles with the observation that EU member states need to speak with one voice in Council meetings. As the various Belgian actors have to sing from the same sheet, coordination is crucial and, much like in the EU, a daily reality. Federal institutions play a major role in this regard, mainly (but not exclusively) the Directorate for European Affairs and Coordination (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a). Adding a layer of complexity, for the actual representation of the Belgian position, the various Council configurations are grouped into six categories (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a; Bursens et al., 2015; Kerremans & Beyers, 1998): “exclusive federal representation” (e.g., foreign affairs); “federal representation with assessor of the federated entities” (e.g., transport and energy); “empowerment of the federated entities with federal assessor” (e.g., environment and research); “exclusive empowerment of the federated entities” (e.g., education and youth); “exclusive empowerment of a single Region or a single Community” (fisheries, for which Flanders is competent given its coast on the North Sea); and “federal representation, assisted by federated entities, for which the rotation system does not apply” (agriculture).

Importantly, this system, which revolves around “consensus, mixed delegation and rotation,” does not cover implementation (Skoutaris, 2012, p. 221; see also Beyers & Bursens, 2006a; Kerremans & Beyers, 1998). As a result, and quite paradoxically, Belgium may be widely known as one of the best pupils in the EU class, even the best one, yet it is lagging behind in terms of implementation (Delreux & Randour, 2015; Swenden, 2010). In fact, looking at the available numbers on transposition of law, the label “average student” seems more appropriate (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a, p. 176; own translation).22 The problems surrounding implementation have also been visible in the context of ratification. CETA is not the only example here (see also “Introduction”). A similar situation emerged in the context of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, when Flanders only approved ratification after an inter-parliamentary cooperation agreement was concluded, which it deemed necessary for operationalizing the declaration annexed by Belgium to the Lisbon Treaty on the equal powers of the parliamentary assemblies of its federated entities (i.e., Declaration 51) (Vanden Bosch, 2014).

Over the years, Belgium’s complex system of coordination and representation has encouraged quite a lot of scholarly interest. Belgian scholars of the EU seem to have an almost natural interest in how the federated entities leave their mark on European affairs, but their colleagues abroad too have taken note of these entities (cf. Whitman & Tonra, 2017). This interest has not been limited to the origins and evolution of the involvement of these entities in European decision-making. It also includes the realities of cooperation and representation, both for common and less common decisions, such as treaty revisions. Returning topics are access, influence, and legitimacy (Bursens & Högenauer, 2017; Sinardet & Bursens, 2014; Van Hecke, Bursens, & Beyers, 2016). Comparison is used here to gauge the uniqueness of the Belgian case, with scholars comparing the Belgian experience with that of neighboring countries (Bursens, Beyers, & Donas, 2014; Bursens, Hielscher, & van Keulen, 2015). More fundamental questions have been raised as well, notably whether the EU and federated entities should be seen as “[u]nintended partners in unravelling the Belgian state” (Swenden, 2010, p. 16) or whether the EU comes to its “rescue” (Beyers & Bursens, 2006b, p. 1057). The jury is still out on this, though the answer seems to be growing more complex as time passes, with recent work finding evidence for both cooperation and competition (Beyers & Bursens, 2013; Deschouwer, 2012).

It is clear in any case that while European integration has shaped the functioning of Belgium as a federal state, the opposite holds true as well. For instance, Belgium, and Flanders in particular, was one of the driving forces behind the provision included in the Maastricht Treaty that opened the door for ministers from federated entities to represent their countries, giving them a “direct say” in EU decision-making (Skoutaris, 2012, p. 221).23 Likewise, Belgium’s 2001 EU presidency was the first in history in which federated entities played an active role on behalf of a member state, even though it was often balancing between “a federal Presidency” and “a Presidency of a federal state” (Kerremans & Drieskens, 2002, p. 51).24 Balancing was no longer the case in 2010 and that was for the better. Belgium’s 2010 presidency was the first to function with a caretaker government for the complete duration of its term. An important explanation for why this stint turned out to be a success rather than the expected disaster is the fact that the federal government was just one of many governments involved in the organization (Drieskens, 2011).

The 2010 EU presidency was pioneering for a second reason as well: It was the first one under Lisbon rules. Belgium, true to its image as champion of European integration, decided to lead by example, aiming to ensure full implementation of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of the term (Bursens, Drieskens, & Van Hecke, 2010; Drieskens, 2011; Van Hecke & Bursens, 2011). This was also visible in the context of the United Nations (UN), where Belgium tried to ensure full implementation by campaigning for enhanced observer rights for the EU at the UN General Assembly. The EU was given these rights eventually, but the Belgian team encountered a rather hostile environment (Drieskens, 2015; Drieskens, Van Dievel, & Reykers, 2014). In a similar vein, Belgium has tried to give its three most recent memberships of the UN Security Council (1971–1972, 1991–1992, and 2007–2008) a European twist (Van Kemseke, 2007). During the last stint, for instance, it tried to upgrade the weekly information-sharing meetings between the EU member states in New York as well as the interaction between Brussels and New York (Drieskens, 2009; Drieskens, Marchesi, & Kerremans, 2007). Belgium joins this body again as non-permanent member in 2019 and 2020. After having experienced an environment that regards the EU’s wishes and demands with increasing suspicion, it should come as no surprise that it intends to continue this pragmatic line of introducing the EU into this body during these two years (Mandat de la Belgique au Conseil de Sécurité (2019–2020), 2018).


Taking the literature as a guide, this article explored Belgium’s functioning as a pro-European and federal member state within EU integration, uncovering myths, realities, and prospects. Two sets of conclusions can be drawn. First, the fact that Belgian officials have been important in the defining stages of European integration, even held the pen of history, does not turn Belgium’s political history into one long and coherent episode of unconditional support for cooperation at the European level, especially when it comes to its federalized form. Behind the widespread image of Belgium as the most fervent advocate of European integration lies a more complex reality of past and present change. The observation that Belgium’s functioning as a federal state confronts us with an even more complex reality brings us to the second set of conclusions. Indeed, for better or for worse, the fact that Belgium is a federal state of communities and regions clearly shows at the European level. It does so in the form of a complex system of coordination and representation, which is aimed at ensuring a single Belgian voice in EU decision-making. Equally important, but more difficult to observe, is the more fundamental question of whether the EU and these federated entities should be seen as partners in the hollowing out of the federal state or whether the opposite holds true. The answer to this question seems to have become more complex over time; scholars find evidence of both cooperation and confrontation. Chances are that both these research topics and the related findings will shape research on Belgium in/and the EU in the years to come as well, even if for no other reason than the reality of Brexit and the growing lure of confederalism. After all, what is a challenge for policy-makers is often an opportunity for scholars.


The author wishes to thank the reviewers and editors for their useful feedback on a previous draft.

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                                                                                                                                                                                      (1.) See Stouthuysen, Meier, and Kavadias (2007) on the position of EU-related research in political science in Belgium more generally.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (2.) This image was used by European Parliament president Antonio Tajani when welcoming Belgium’s prime minister Charles Michel to the “Future of Europe” debate series in May 2018. Tajani tweeted the following: “Belgium is at the heart of Europe in every sense, a founding member and long-standing champion of the European project. Welcome Prime Minister Charles Michel, I look forward to your perspective and the debate with MEPs on the #FutureofEurope. #MFF” (EP_President, 2018).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (3.) Somewhat ironically, the Belgian government was the biggest obstacle in the early days of integration (Van Kemseke, 2010; Van Parijs, 2014). When the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was created by the Treaty of Paris in 1951, the government did not support the proposal that Brussels would serve as seat of the new institutions. Still coping with the aftermath of the abdication of King Leopold III, the Walloon city of Liège was suggested as an alternative. Liège was at the center of the Belgian coal and steel industries and, for reasons of domestic politics, it was seen as less of a controversial choice than Brussels. A few years later, however, the Belgian government decided to play the Brussels card for hosting the new institutions when the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) were established. While no agreement was reached, a pragmatic solution was found in a system of rotation in alphabetical order. The logistical burden of rotation and the generous provision of (office) space by the Belgian government have created an almost irreversible reality. Indeed, change, like formalization, requires a unanimous decision by the member states.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (4.) As of November 2017, 84% of the Belgian people declared trust in the common energy policy (EU28: 72%), 81% in the economic and monetary union (EU28: 61%), and 77% in the common migration policy (EU28: 69%) (Vertegenwoordiging van de European Commissie in België, 2018).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (5.) Coolsaet argues that this choice for supranationalism is one of two “major discontinuities” in Belgium’s foreign policy of the last 185 years, besides the late 19th-century colonial imperialism of King Leopold II (Coolsaet, 2014, p. 657; own translation). He sees the second discontinuity as most decisive because the policy that followed from Belgium’s choice for supranationalism largely mirrored the economic goals of the interwar period.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (6.) Falter (2017) shows that prime minister Achiel Van Acker was displeased by the French decision to impose trade barriers on Belgian endive as well as by Spaak’s approval of Belgium’s financial contribution being larger than that of the Netherlands. The Société Générale feared interference in its mining activities in Congo and, apparently influenced by former prime minister Paul van Zeeland, the new King Baudouin was reluctant to agree to supranationalism.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (7.) Davignon joined the European Commission in 1977.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (8.) Tindemans participated in the first direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979. He was dubbed the “man of one million votes” after obtaining a record number of preference votes.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (9.) Tindemans served as the party’s president from 1976 to 1985; Martens was president from 1990 to 2013.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (10.) Like Dehaene, he continued his career in the European Parliament, aspiring to and carrying out various high-level functions. Verhofstadt has been member of the European Parliament since 2009, leading the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) fraction. He was the party’s Spitzenkandidat in 2014 and candidate for the position of European Parliament president in 2017. At the time of writing, he was Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (11.) The party evolved out of the Volksunie in 2001. In 2004, it entrusted its fate to a cartel with the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V). Following the cartel’s collapse in 2008, the party achieved its major breakthrough in the regional elections of 2009, resulting in government participation. Following the 2014 federal elections, it also joined the federal government. The party sees the future of Belgium as a confederation of Flanders and Wallonia.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (12.) Hence, some see the speech that prime minister Michel delivered at the European Parliament as part of the Future of Europe series, and the elements emphasized therein as an extension of a longer trend towards using the EU “as a forum for intra-Belgian party politics” (Van Hecke Steven, 2018). Advocating multispeed integration, Michel identified himself as “a committed European, but not a naïve and smug European,” as a European convinced that the EU should “persuade with an ideal and concrete results” (Prime Minister of Belgium, 2018). See also “Introduction”.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (13.) Some say Brexit will change this. Presenting Belgium with the “most significant foreign policy challenge in decades,” it makes “a frank discussion” about European integration “unavoidable” (Mattelaer, 2017b, p. 2, 2017a, p. 4).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (14.) The author wishes to thank the reviewer for pointing out that Volksunie was not against European integration as such, but favored a Europe of regions rather than of states. See also Bursens, Drieskens, and Van Hecke (2010).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (15.) Spaak’s membership of the Socialist party makes him the exception to the rule.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (16.) As of November 2017, 59% of the Belgian population is negative about enlargement (EU28: 47%) (Vertegenwoordiging van de European Commissie in België, 2018). Note that the most recent government agreement (i.e., the 2014 agreement) calls for a continuation of European integration, while preferring deepening, such as for economic and monetary union, over widening understood as enlargement (Belgische Regering, 2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (17.) This first step in the process of state reform was followed by five additional rounds of negotiation, in 1980, 1988–1989, 1993, 2001, and 2012. For a schematic overview of this process up until 2001, see Swenden, Brans, and De Winter (2006). For the 2012 reform, see Deschouwer and Reuchamps (2013) and Van Aelst and Louwerse (2013).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (18.) A full spectrum of opinions could be found at the time of writing. Some advocate the end of Belgium, while others envisage a confederation between Flanders and Wallonia, further federalization than before, or even re-federalization of competences such as mobility, energy, and climate.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (19.) The institutions of the Flemish Community and the Flemish Region were merged in 1980.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (20.) As the CETA episode illustrated here, decisions that involve competences of different levels—such as the signing and ratification of EU trade agreements—must be approved unanimously by these various levels. For a detailed discussion of this episode, see Bursens (2016).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (21.) The three official languages are Dutch, French, and German. Different numbers can be found in terms of distribution, but it is roughly speaking 60–40–1. For a long time, however, French was the only official language, inspiring demands for cultural autonomy in Flanders (Hooghe, 1993). See the work of Swenden and Jans for why the Walloon demand for socioeconomic autonomy has been not only more recent but also weaker (Swenden & Jans, 2006).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (22.) Calling for “the actual transposition of EU law,” the latest government agreement suggests that the introduction of federal substitution did not solve this problem (Belgische Regering, 2014, p. 282; own translation). See the volume of Beyers and Bursens for a schematic overview of the transposition and infringement procedures (Beyers & Bursens, 2006a).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (23.) See current article 16(2) of the Treaty on European Union.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (24.) Following the decision that all European Council meetings would be organized in Brussels after 2002, Verhofstadt set up a brainstorming group to present ideas on the functions and needs of a European capital and how Brussels could meet them (Brussels, Capital of Europe, 2001). This initiative, which was supported by Commission president Romano Prodi, did not (intend to) make Brussels the official capital of the EU, though it came close enough.