It means that Flemish government ministers will be chairing key EU Council of Ministers formations, leading the debates amongst the 27 EU member states. Indeed, with the presidency already seven weeks old, some already have: Flemish environment minister Joke Schauvliege chaired July's informal Environment Council in Ghent.
It is a moment for Flanders to seize the limelight and show its ability to manage the EU's demanding political and bureaucratic agenda, a task that has overwhelmed many full member states before. "It is a unique opportunity to show the world what we can do and who we are," says Flanders' minister-president Kris Peeters (pictured above). "I hope that other EU member states will be able to see that we are very competent."
Peeters also wants the presidency to provide a six-month window onto Flanders as a dynamic, export-driven hive of innovation and creativity. "I hope at the end of the presidency, we will have given a different image of Flanders, that we can change perceptions," he says. Due to institutional reforms over the years, political regions have jurisdiction over various policies: transport, road works, employment, industrial, environmental, spatial and structural planning, agricul- ture, housing and trade. (The language communities are responsible for education, preventive health care, culture and media.)
In EU configurations, Flemish, Walloon or Brussels region officials - and, on occasion, Flemish and Francophone community officials - represent Belgium according to the policy area. During this presidency, Flanders will represent Belgium in the policy fields of education, youth, sport, environment and fisheries. The overall Belgian presidency programme has been two years in the making, the product of carefully managed negotiations by all the country's parties, as well as coordinated agreements with the previous Spanish EU presidency and the Hungarian presidency next year. Indeed, an army of bureaucrats has already laid the groundwork, and many of them know the drill, as this is the 12th time that Belgium has taken over the EU baton.
European leadership without a government
Caretaker Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme has downplayed his govern- ment's role to the extent that last month he told the European Parliament that most of his agenda is set by the EU. He pointed out that since the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect last year, creating a president of the European Council (former Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy) and a high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, the presidency role has been further eroded. That all helps mollify the fact that Belgium has had no formal government in place since the 13 June elections and is unlikely to have one before October. And it means that the presidency will continue with its programme as planned before the unex- pected elections, which includes setting up new rules for greater fiscal discipline and economic governance; establish- ing the EU's first ever foreign ministry, or External Action Service (EAS); and ensuring a result from the global climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico.
But Flanders has its own priorities within the Belgian presidency. Launching the Flemish programme at the end of June, Peeters identified four major challenges for the EU: globalisation, demographic changes, climate change and energy. And he outlined the five general priorities Flanders would contribute to the Belgian presidency programme: the Europe 2020 strategy and its links with the Flemish "Pact 2020"; social inclusion, includ- ing the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion; climate, energy and environment; involving regions and young citizens; and sustain- able development.
"These challenges also require a stronger role of the regions in the European Union," says Peeters. "Regions are able to provide solutions for the specific problems of European citizens, provide sustainable growth and employment, and thus create a new platform for the European integration process. For me, the future European Union is therefore a European Union of the regions."
But most of all, Flanders has a rare opportunity to show its credentials when it comes to the intricate task of running EU business. If Peeters is right, then the Flemish traditions of organisation, compromise, adaptability and hospitality will help deliver a smooth EU presidency and transform Europe's - and the world's - view of Flanders.
The Flemish ministers heading Europe
Four ministers from the Flemish government will oversee a Council of Ministers during the Belgian presidency, handling fisheries, the environment, education, youth and sports. Here is a brief overview of their responsibilities and the challenges they will have to face over the next few months.
Kris Peeters · Fisheries
As if being Flemish minister-president was not enough, Kris Peeters, of the Christian Democrat party (CD&V), has also assumed the tricky fisheries portfolio. While the fishing sector is a tiny fraction of the EU's economy, it is one of the most sensitive, and Peeters will have to manage the debate on reforming the much-criticised Common Fisheries Policy at the 29-30 November Fisheries Council in Brussels.
Peeters has already indicated that he will put sustainable fishing at the heart of his agenda and will try to develop a stronger dialogue between the fishing industry - which typically seeks big catch quotas - and the scientists, who warn that quotas need to be
cut to help dwindling stocks recover.
To help foster debate, Peeters has organised other gatherings, like the 2010 international Fisheries Symposium in Ostend on 9-10 November, and the EurOcean 2010 European Conference on Marine and Maritime Research, also in Ostend, from 11-13 October.
There are two other Fisheries Councils, on 26 October in Luxembourg and on 13-14 December in Brussels. The latter is traditionally the last of the EU calendar, and is an all-night affair as ministers hammer out deals on the next year's quotas.
Pascal Smet · Education and youth
Pascal Smet of the socialist party (SP.A) currently has a sprawling portfolio in the Flemish government, as minister for education, youth, equal opportunities and Brussels affairs. That means he will chair two of the three sessions at the Education, Youth and Culture Council in Brussels
on 18-19 November. At a 7 December informal Council in Bruges, ministers will discuss a new work programme for vocational training and education up to 2020. Last month in Ghent, the first European Youth Work Convention looked at a wide range of issues covering jobs, and it will feed into the EU Youth Conference on Youth Employment in Leuven from 1-5 October.
Other related presidency events include the Conference on Learning Mobility in Antwerp on 5-6 October and a Conference on Social inclusion in Ghent on 28-29 September.
Joke Schauvliege · Environment
The environment has become one of the EU's key policy areas in recent years, covering an ever-more ambitious range of measures. Flemish environment minister Joke Schauvliege (CD&V) has already chaired the July Environment Council in Ghent, which focused on sustainable materials management. This is one of the four environmental priorities for Flanders, and Schauvliege urged her fellow EU ministers to think cyclically about using waste products as raw material for new products with a cradle-to-cradle approach.
Schauvliege will chair two formal Environment Councils - on 14 October in Luxembourg and on 20 December in Brussels. Her second priority is climate change; after the disappointment of the Copenhagen summit last December, Schauvliege - who will represent the entire EU internationally - will aim to ensure Europe is better placed to impose an agreement at the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, which begins on 29 November.
The third theme is biodiversity, and Schauvliege will again represent the EU at a global level during the international conference on biodiversity from 18-29 October in Nagoya, Japan. (The conference Biodiversity post-2010: Biodiversity in a Changing World in Ghent on 8-9 September will feed into the EU's preparations).
And the fourth priority will be improving the transparency, coordination and actual application of current EU environmental legislation.
Philippe Muyters · Sport
Sport has forced its way onto the EU agenda and is now covered in the Lisbon Treaty. Flemish sports minister Philippe Muyters of the nationalist party (N-VA) will not chair any formal Sports Council (they have yet to take place), but he will host an informal ministerial in Antwerp on 21-22 October. Muyters says he wants to start an EU debate on the role of sport in combating social exclusion, education and training in the sports sector and the fight against doping in sport.