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In accordance with the constitutional principle of in foro interno, in foro externo (i.e. the parallelism between internal and external competences), the federated entities of Belgium are empowered to act on the international aspects of their internal powers (such as energy, environment, education, etc.). With the signing of the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, it also became possible for the ministers of the federated entities to represent their Member State in the Council of the European Union.
To this end, the federal government and the federated entities signed the “Cooperation Agreement between the Federal State, the Communities and the Regions on the representation of the Kingdom of Belgium in the Council of Ministers of the European Union” in 1994. This cooperation agreement governs the coordination of European policy among the federal and federated entities in Belgium, and it organises the representation of Belgium within the different Council configurations of the Council of the European Union. In 2003, this cooperation agreement was further amended after the policy areas of agriculture and fisheries were regionalised.
1. Belgian coordination of European policy
Firstly, the Cooperation Agreement states that, for the coordination of European policy, consultation must take place between the federal and regional governments regarding the Belgian position that will be adopted during the meeting of the Council. It is the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs, and specifically the Directorate-General for European Affairs and Coordination (DGE), which is responsible for organising this consultation and chairing these meetings. These so-called “DGE meetings” are attended by the federal and federated representatives of the substantively competent ministers’ offices and departments.
2. Representation at the Council of the European Union
Once the Belgian position has been determined, the Minister for Foreign Affairs sends instructions to the Permanent Representation, with a copy sent to each relevant minister. The Permanent Representation is authorised to participate at the working group and ambassador level in the meetings that are prepared by the Councils of Ministers. In principle, a minister representing Belgium at the Council is obliged to comply with the outcome of the DGE meeting, but the Belgian position can naturally be modified for urgent reasons.
A special system for the representation of Belgium was devised in the Cooperation Agreement. The 22 different Council configurations that existed back in 1994 (at the time the agreement was drawn up) have been broken down into 6 categories. A specific arrangement was established for each of these six categories:
Category I: Exclusive federal representation
- General Affairs;
- Foreign Affairs;
- Economic and Financial Affairs (Ecofin);
- Justice and Home Affairs (JHA);
- Civil Protection;
- Consumer Protection.
Category II: Federal representation with assessor of the federated entities
- Domestic Market;
- Employment and Social Affairs;
- Public Health.
Category III: Empowerment of the federated entities with federal assessor
Category IV: Exclusive empowerment of the federated entities
- Culture and Audio-visual Affairs;
- Spatial Planning;
- Regional policy (no formal council configuration).
Category V: Exclusive empowerment of a single Region or a single Community
- Fisheries: always represented by the competent Flemish minister (North Sea).
Category VI: Federal representation, assisted by federated entities, to which the rotation system does not apply
A Regional minister seated within a specific Council configuration always represents Belgium, and as such expresses the unified Belgian position. The assessor may assist the sitting Minister on matters that fall under the authority of his/her governmental level. The assessor may also chair consultations with the sitting minister. For the regional assessorship, a rotating turn is agreed upon between the Communities and the Regions.
The representation of “informal Councils” (meetings of ministers who exchange thoughts on an informal basis and make no formal decisions) is to a large extent arranged along the same lines as the formal Councils.