EC circus comes to town(s): Belgium's move towards federalism could make for a confusing Community presidency, writes Sarah Lambert in Brussels

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The Independent Online
PICTURE the embarrassment: Europe's march to unity blocked not by recalcitrant Britain but by that most enthusiastic EC member, Belgium - a country potentially unable to agree with itself.

Come 1 July Belgium takes over the EC presidency from Denmark, an event heralded this week by the formal presentation of the country's logo - a blue discus bearing the 12 stars of Europe, caught mid-flight by a huge letter B in the national colours.

The fear is that the presidency will catch Belgian politicians in mid-fight, raising the spectre of meetings deadlocked because the presidency itself is split, region against region.

A far-reaching constitutional reform now being hammered out by parliament will create a fully-fledged federal state. Belgium as a national entity will no longer have a national cultural policy. Many decisions on environmental protection or foreign trade will be taken at regional level. More fundamentally, the French, Flemish and German communities will have the autonomous right to sign foreign treaties.

For those who have trouble naming 10 famous Belgians the presidency is likely to provide a kaleidoscope of fresh possibilities. Ministerial meetings during the Belgian presidency will be chaired by a parade of regional ministers. The two 'informal' councils (which have no formal agenda) will feature alternatively the leader of the French-speaking community, Guy Spitaels, and the leader of the Flemish-speaking community, Luc van den Brande.

And so that the whole country benefits from the attendant tourist trade, the EC circus will meet in at least eight different locations.

Though the issue of where regionalism stops and separatism begins currently exercises the body politic, the official line is that the reforms will make little difference to the conduct of the EC presidency.

Belgium, providing the Maastricht treaty is ratified in Denmark and Britain, will be the first country to preside over the new-look Community. The work programme has still to be formalised, but Belgium intends to use its presidency to make the Maastricht treaty live politically, to press ahead with enlargement, the social chapter and to encourage initiatives in the two areas not covered by the EC Commission where the Maastricht treaty envisages closer co-operation: foreign policy and judicial affairs.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office pointed out that Belgium has been moving steadily towards full federalism for several years. Inter-community committees already exist and, for example, help formulate the national position on Yugoslavia.

'There won't be three Belgian ministers at meetings - they will meet to co-ordinate a position,' the spokesman said, though he admitted 'I'm not sure what will happen if they can't agree, we are still working on precise rules.'

In an EC context, regional autonomy is likely only to be an issue in decisions affecting culture, health, consumer affairs and, to a limited extent, the environment. Even then it is unlikely to interfere with the usual process of EC decision-making. 'Everyone knows that Europe is the best guarantor of Belgium's interests,' the spokesman explained.

Certainly Belgians, for reasons of geography and historical experience as much as anything else, are convinced Europeans. As a political analyst recently observed: 'With the debate over the correct course of federalism tearing the political fabric of the country, the King, the national debt and Europe are all that holds Belgium together.'

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