Where is Europe heading? Will others follow the BREXIT lead? And what is Germany’s role? The Belgian Ambassador, H.E. Ghislain D’hoop, discusses these issues with the Chairman of the Board of the International Economic Council, Tino Barth
Excellency, the German daily newspaper “Handelsblatt” wrote a while ago: “Brussels – Europe’s Centre of Power“. Many things have happened since then. Does that statement still hold true today?
I would say that Brussels is Europe’s political centre, at least in the sense that it’s the political centre of EU institutions. And Brussels is also a “centre of influence.“ Of course we can debate the meaning of the word “power” for a long time. What is true power? Power is often carried out by the European Council, the body composed of EU heads of states, which meets four to six times in Brussels, depending on what crisis might be occurring. They are the ones who actually exert power. The European Commission and the EU Council, which have their headquarters in Brussels, are also important institutions. In addition, for the past ten to 15 years Brussels is now the location of the most important constitutive meetings of the EU presidential councils of the corresponding European states. Therefore it is fair to say that Brussels is Europe’s political centre. For Belgium, which functions as a sort of “host nation” it’s important to foster these institutions. Apart from the Commission, the Council, and the European Parliament, there are also government committees, the European Economic and Social Committee (EWSA), hundreds of other committees, thousands of lobbyists, and just as many journalists – and that’s only for the EU. Since 1966, the headquarters of NATO have been in Brussels after they were moved from Paris. Other international organisations and institutions that aren’t part of the EU or NATO are also located here. So yes, Brussels is one of the three or four most important capital cities in the world. We are very aware of this! That is why we’re trying to do everything to ensure that our European friends, our allies, and our partners feel welcome and therefore can make the decisions that are important for the future of the EU.
Considering the developments of the past three years, especially in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s last legislative period, how has Germany’s role in the EU changed or not changed?
Germany plays a very important role in the EU. Together with France, in the last months the federal republic has contributed important suggestions and impulses for Europe’s future development. In the most recent past, I think that there have been three topics in which Germany has played a leading role. The first is the economic and currency crisis, which started in 2008 and presented a huge challenge for Europe. Germany’s decision to stabilise and cooperate with the other 27 member states was defining and inspiring. As an ambassador of Belgium, I was quite impressed – along with my other colleagues – that Germany is defining and influencing the future of the EU. This is definitely the case. Although it’s sometimes clear – and some of our German friends tell us this as well – that Germany is influencing the institutions in Brussels for the cohesion of the union. This is totally in line with the goals of a country like Belgium. For a small member state like us – but also simultaneously being the founding country of the European Union – it’s important that the EU helps our country as a multiplier of our diplomacy and our interests, both globally and within Europe. It is fundamental, not only for Belgium, that one of the EU’s leading nations works together with EU institutions and with smaller partners to help them and mutually shape the future of the EU.
In your opinion, what role will Germany take in the coming years?
I hope that Germany continues on its path and continues to inspire and take initiative, including in areas that haven’t really been the focus of our attention. For example, Germany has made some suggestions to improve our external and internal security, and has brought up ideas to strengthen European unity and socioeconomic stability. Europe needs all of this, now more than ever! We would also like to see Germany re-inspire and promote European ideals.
Do we have to completely re-think the topic of “Europe”?
It is certainly important for Europe to recognise and define its special role in a new, developing world. We have to know what we want. The world is changing rapidly, and therefore the “EU- 27“ should be aware of their role as protectors of human rights and democratic principles, but also as a trading block and an enforcer of regulations. We must once again appreciate our cultural traditions, heritages, and monuments in Europe. In the coming years, it will become more difficult to strengthen these principles.
Are the issues of human rights and values, especially when considering Europe’s unity, more current than ever?
Should they be focused on more explicitly? It has always been this way, but now more so than ever. The preamble of all European contracts – especially the new ones in Lisbon, Nice, Amsterdam, and Maastricht –, is a preamble of fundamental values. The German constitution and the German basic law, in its first 25 articles, talks about these fundamental values that are indispensable to societal order. From the very beginning, Europe was a community of values. Europe was always an attempt to answer the question of a new world order after the Second World War. There were different attempts to establish this order: first with coal and steel, then with a shared economy and currency. But from the very beginning it was always about values. The founding fathers of Europe – Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, Walter Hallstein, just to name a few – were clearly inspired by values. Some of them were Christian values, such as Monnet’s Personalism, but they were also humane and humanistic values: a lot of this came together and is reflected in the preamble of contracts in most of the constitutions of EU members. I find that totally normal.
Great Britain doesn’t want to be part of this European community anymore. How do you explain this?
I am certain that we have not lost Great Britain as a partner. After Great Britain’s exit, the EU will still have to maintain a significant relationship with the country. Domestic policy sometimes causes that there are different opinions as to how a particular goal can be reached. There is also a particular popular opinion that must be respected. The world is changing so quickly, not only technologically, but also in the way that citizens outside of Europe act and who they vote for. This change causes new conditions regarding the interaction between people, solidarity, trade, digitalisation, and climate change. Europe and Great Britain are important actors in this new world. And we also have to determine how we’re going to act towards each other and towards this brand new world.
Are you worried that in the coming years, more EU partners will want to leave the community because they don’t believe in the EU anymore?
That is an important question! My personal evaluation is the following: I believe that Great Britain feels more comfortable with a balanced relationship to international partners. They act “British” and don’t see themselves as part of the European block in which the European Commission negotiates on issues such as TTIP or CETA. For some countries this can naturally be frustrating when certain negotiating points that are important for individual EU members are not included or not fully considered. This isn’t currently the case, but the sentiment certainly exists among some member states. And I believe that the Brexiteers in London are saying regarding the EU: That they don’t want their foreign trade to be determined by the Commission. So is this a sentiment that’s shared by other member states? Probably not to that extent. Many recognise the various benefits that come out of this trade union. But I believe that the correct answer is: Brexit made it clear that there’s a demand for a Europe that operates at different speeds. Therefore it requires more flexibility on different levels. If I weren’t speaking as a Belgian diplomat, I’d say: The future of the EU can’t be that the EU becomes an umbrella organisation with 27 sub-organisations where everyone cherry-picks the things they happen to need at the moment. This isn’t the purpose of a union. That’s why the EU must remain a community. The contracts ensure that there is unity in certain aspects of cooperation. As an EU member state, there are three possibilities to react to business connections, formulated by the US sociologist Albert Hirschman: Loyalty, Voice, and Exit – which means to either support the contracts, adapt them, or leave the negotiations. To adapt and negotiate contracts is something that the “EU-27” needs the most, in my opinion.
How can the EU improve? For many citizens, this seems like a difficult process.
There are many voices in politics, diplomacy, and economics, as well as some journalists, that say that the EU is too far removed from the people, that it’s too complex and that therefore not many people feel connected to the EU. What can be done? I am convinced that there are no easy solutions. Reasonable and forward-thinking solutions are always complex. Simple suggestions that perhaps perform well on social media or on TV aren’t always the best answers to complex problems. We need to do much more in order to establish direct contact with citizens and businesses. That’s why here at the embassy I try to invite as many different groups as possible in order to talk with them. Even at this level it’s important to speak to people about these issues. Nowadays results can’t be achieved that easily. Efforts must be made and you have to be interested in what’s happening in the world and why Europe even exists. The answer to this question can be found in the last 60 years. The next question concerns the future. How can we preserve issues of social justice, wealth, and peace in today’s world?
This question is of course closely related to the EU’s foreign policy.
Certainly. I was very impressed in January when Chancellor Merkel was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Universities of Ghent and Leuven and held an interesting speech which was mainly dedicated to Europe. In terms of European foreign policy, she indicated that there are great tensions and different beliefs at Europe’s peripheries regarding how to organise a society. Therefore we as the EU have to organise ourselves in a way that allows us to have answers for issues such as terrorism, immigration, and other political regimes. In general, we require a stronger presence in our foreign policy, since foreign policy begins at our borders, in our immediate neighbourhood. Many politicians are also aware of this sharpened profile. A strong example is the agreement with Iran, which involved the European Foreign Service and many other countries. This shows what can be done when everyone works together. Of course Europe also works in the shadows. We’re one of the biggest humanitarian donors and work closely with UN organisations. Especially with regards to the demographic developments, digitalisation, research, and developments in world trade, it becomes obvious that Europe needs to work harder when it comes to its foreign policy.
Official name: Kingdom of Belgium
Area: 30,528 km²
Population: 11.32 million
Population density: 372 inhabitants per km²
Official languages: Dutch, French, German
Government: Parliamentary constitutional monarchy
Head of government: Prime Minister Charles Michel
National anthem: La Brabançonne