Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Belgium scuppers Constitution? Sadly hoping won't make it happen

Dan Hannan yesterday flags up an idea that was first floated by Chris Booker and has since been taken up by the Devil's Kitchen. That is that the Constitutional Crisis in Belgium may well have a significant impact upon the ability of the EU to get its Constitution.
As Dan puts it,

"the prolonged absence of a Belgian Prime Minister is beginning to cause concern around the EU. If the crisis is still unresolved by 13 December, there will be no one with the authority to sign the Lisbon Treaty"
The premise is that with only a caretaker Government, the Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt will not be constitutionally allowed to sign the Treaty in December if the Belgians have not by then sorted out their little local difficulty.

However following a correspondence with one of Belgium's leading Constitutional lawyers I must, sadly pour cold water on the idea. This is despite comments made in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, repeated on EU Observer.
His argument goes something like this,

"I have doubts that anything can be done at this stage. Formally, the prime Minister has the authority to sign any treaty. Signing is a matter for the Executive, not for the Belgian parliament".
I repeated my question as to the caretaker status of the PM and whether this had any importance,

"There is some misunderstanding as to the status of a caretaker government:
- as long as the new parliament is not assembled, there is a convention that they can do very few things.
- however, once the parliament is in session again, the government can do more.
I agree that according to tradition, the outgoing government should not sign the Treaty, but there is no legal sanction against doing so. Or rather; the only body who can sanction is Parliament (by not ratifying).

It is true that there are some divergences of opinion on this matter between constitutionalists. But I don't give an action for annulment of the signing (by the Administrative Court) a chance: they will say that the signature itself does not make the Treaty valid in the internal order, and that only the ratification can be attacked (namely before the Constitutional Court)".
Though I have long hoped for the delicious irony that Belgium might cause mayhem by default, I have also believed that a little thing like due process would not stop them. After all 'no' votes didn't.

There again there is the small factor of requiring the Flanders Parliament to ratify the Treaty. That looks to me like one very big stick in their armoury in their disagreements with the Belgian Federal State.


Anonymous said...

Hannan, columnist and politician. Heard of him.

Booker, columnist and write. Heard of him.

Devil's Kitchen. Who is?

Useful clarification nevertheless. Thanks.

Elaib Harvey said...

DK is one of Britain's leading political bloggers.

eulogist said...

There again there is the small factor of requiring the Flanders Parliament to ratify the Treaty. That looks to me like one very big stick in their armoury in their disagreements with the Belgian Federal State.

I don't get this, could you explain a bit? The EU and its new Treaty are not controversial in Belgium, on any level. There are large majorities in favour on both the federal and the regional levels. Even the Flemish "nationalist" bogeymen of NVA are strongly in favour of the EU. Vlaams Blok/Belang may not be, but their main thing electorally is anti-immigrantism - not nationalism.

Agree with your Belgian constitutional expert. The (unwritten) convention in cases like these is that the caretaker government cannot do anything that is politically controversial, with parliament defining which issues this applies to. My guess is that the EU Treaty is not among them.

Elaib Harvey said...

When the Constitution was being ratified, the Federal Parliament, the Brussels Parliament and the Walloon Parliament all ratified with aclarity, whereas the Flemish Parliament dragged its feet for months and months, screwing a large degree of political advantage from the procedure.

I am not sure if I recognise your other comments though. Far from being bogeymen the NVA is locked into a longstanding alliance with the CD&V, the most europhile of the Flemish parties, their bogeyman status is not something I have heard of in my 9 years in this country, meanwhile the key policy platform for the VB is as it always was independence for Flanders. Their enemies claim that their anti immigrant (and that is largely a cultural, anti-Islam rather than a general xenophobic thing) policies are their raison d'etre doesn't stand up to any serious scrutiny.
You also forget, I suggest, the rise of the List De Decker which may have some influence in Flemish ratification, and is by no means certain to support the new Treaty/Constitution.

eulogist said...

OK, get what you mean now with the Flemish stick in the federal armoury.

NVA not bogeymen? Not been reading any French-speaking media recently?

VB: they have been trying to put up a more respectable face recently, true. Their French-language campaigns in Brussels however show where their true heart is. I don't blame them, professionally at least: anti-immigrantism gets you a lot more votes, even in Flanders.

Dedecker voted in favour of the European Constitution and supports things like Blue Cards. Doesn't sound very euroskeptic to me.

Elaib Harvey said...

E Decker did support the Constitution at that time, but things have changed. That doesn't mean he and his will not support the new Treaty, but his support is no longer a given.
NVA, well OK the Francophone press is rampaging a bit about them, but to be fair, all the french language newspapers are in reciept of a monthly subsidy from the Government, (for that matter as are the Flemish papers barring the Gazet van Limburg and Het Laatse Nieuws) so it is hardly suprising if they are bigging them up. It is easier to do than deal with the VB.
Of course I get the VB french stuff stuffed through my letterbox on a regular basis, interestingly they are the only party in my part of Brussels who does this. And yes in a French speaking part of town they do concentrate on the immigration issue, the Flemish independence line not being one that has much purchase in Schaerbeek/St Jost. What it does mean is they are picking up a suprising amount of support from settled Turks, and even Moroccans locally.