To properly understand Belgium’s view on Europe, I would first like to address a slightly broader question regarding multilateralism in general. Belgians are, as is well-known, born multilateralists. Belgium stood at the heart of almost any international and regional organisation you can think of: the UN, NATO, BENELUX (an economic union comprising the countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), the European Communities (now the European Union, or EU), the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD), the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) etc. Why is that? Not, I would argue, because of some slightly romantic predilection for ‘soft’ multilateralism, as opposed to supposedly ‘hard’ bilateralism. It is much more prosaic than that. Belgium’s commitment to multilateralism results from a rational calculation: multilateralism pays. For a country of our size, multilateral organisations amplify our voice and provide us with a lever for the projection of our influence. Going it alone is simply not an option for us: we would be a footnote in European and world governance.
That is one reason why Belgium is truly interested in the EU and does care about its future. But there is more to it: the EU stands for two major achievements which must be preserved at any cost.
First, it has brought us peace, stability and prosperity. Bringing peace and unity to a war-torn continent was the underlying political motivation of European Communities’ founding fathers. This may seem like a slightly dramatic way of putting things and may look somewhat passé, but it is not. History is not irreversible. Look at how localist and nationalist, xenophobic and protectionist reflexes have re-emerged in the context of the current economic and financial crisis. The EU has not just brought peace and stability to its inner core, to a small group of closely knit countries in western Europe, but has consequently expanded that area of stability to include its Eastern and Central European neighbours through what, no doubt, is one of Europe’s biggest success stories: the enlargement process. This is a geopolitical feat that should not be underestimated. We have become blasé over this achievement and now take it for granted. But we should not, and that is why Belgium remains fully committed to the enlargement process, particularly regarding the Balkans. That is also why we consider the neighbourhood policies, both in its eastern and southern dimension, of paramount importance. All this is about sharing stability and prosperity with others, both to their – and let’s not fool ourselves – to our own benefit. But it is also what power projection is all about: making sure that Europe is an indispensable player in world politics, that it is reckoned with when it comes to deciding the course of action in, say, Iran. Would the oil embargo against Iran have had any effectiveness if it had not been decided at EU level?
The second major reason explaining Belgium’s commitment to Europe is related to its concrete and tangible achievements for the well-being of its citizens. The EU has created an open space in which people can freely move from one place to another, without having to bother any more about borders; in which they can freely decide where to settle or where to work; in which goods, services and capital can flow unhindered; in which social and labour standards are respected across the board. All this has engendered a sense of liberty for people living in Europe and brought about a measure of efficiency in our economies which was unthinkable just a few decades ago. The creation of the world’s largest single market is no doubt, next to the enlargement process, the second biggest success story of European integration. Size matters: the economies of scale that an integrated market can offer have made our firms stronger and our citizens better off. In the wider world it has given the EU tremendous leverage in trade negotiations. Just think about the Free Trade Agreement with South Korea; never could a single Member State have hoped to achieve this. Again, it is not only the Belgian national interest that is best served by such an open Europe, but also the national interests of all other EU Member States. An integrated Europe is a rational project based on the cooperative logic of a win-win strategy.
There is nothing sentimental about Belgium’s take on Europe. We do not espouse any kind of ideologically driven Europhilia. We don’t love Europe just for the sake of Europe. But we are very conscious of what Europe has brought us, and of what it can continue to bring. It is a matter of properly apprehending the national interest, and that the national interest does not contradict but is fully compatible with other nations’ interests. As a matter of political leadership we must explain to our citizens that Europe does make a difference.
At this point some readers may wonder: is it as simple as that? Of course it is not. We too are fully aware of some major flaws in the construction of the EU and we will work with others to address them. There are indeed serious questions to be asked with regard to European governance and democratic legitimacy. In Belgium, too, some are concerned about what are perceived to be intrusive powers granted to the Union without the proper countervailing checks and balances. There is a lively debate going on in Brussels about how to ensure a number of things, such as the citizens’ commitment in matters European and the proper application of the principles of proportionality and subsidiaries. But however critical these outstanding questions are, they do not detract us from the basic picture sketched above: European integration is a winning proposition.