Belgium takes EC helm with plans to boost integration: PM of a federalist nation believes in pushing for 'not less but more Europe'

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The Independent Online
BELGIUM, one of the most enthusiastic European Community member states, takes over the baton as president of the Community from Denmark today with hopes of reinvigorating the EC at a time of deepening economic, social and political malaise in Europe.

Lacking any great sense of national identity themselves, the Belgians have registered scarcely a blip of opposition to the grand designs for European union that have triggered such agonising in Britain and Denmark, the previous two occupiers of the six- month revolving presidency. Overshadowed by larger neighbours, the Belgians see closer European integration as the only way forward and they are among the most ardent federalists in the Community.

With their own country dividing up, peacefully, along linguistic lines between Flemish-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and bilingual Brussels, and with fiscal and financial autonomy going to the regions, Belgians also feel they have a lot to offer the Community as it struggles to come to terms with the wave of destructive nationalism spreading across the Continent.

The success of European political union is seen as vital if Belgium is to head off antagonism between nationalists in richer Flanders at the subsidies it pays depressed Wallonia. Under political union certain responsibilities will be transferred to the EC and the regions will look to the subsidiarity principle, which should ensure that they each have a say in decisions that would affect their citizens.

Taking over after Britain and Denmark, both of which remained deeply allergic to fully fledged integration and the loss of sovereignty to a European superstate, Belgium hopes to make up for lost time during its six months in the limelight. One of the first initiatives will be for a summit meeting of the 12 heads of state once Britain and Germany have ratified the Maastricht treaty, in the hope of getting public opinion across the Community behind the treaty.

The Belgian Prime Minister, Jean- Luc Dehaene, believes in 'not less but more Europe'. He said this week that the top presidency priority was rapid implementation of Maastricht. 'After more than a year of uncertainty, it seems to me tremendously important that the implementation of Maastricht should not be under-estimated for a moment,' he said.

Despite wariness across the EC with the Maastricht process, Brussels is pressing ahead with the timetable, hoping to make a head start on european monetary union by 1994. It also wants to make the proposed common foreign and security policy for the Community operational before the end of the year and to force the pace on enlargement so that the EC is ready to accept Austria, Sweden, Finland and Norway by 1 January 1995.

More urgently, Belgium will be looking for solutions to the economic crisis and lengthening dole queues that are posing an increasing threat to political stability in the EC.

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