"Do everything to avoid job losses"

At the start of the New Year flandersnews.be spoke with Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme (Christian democrat) about Afghanistan, his priorities for Belgium’s EU Presidency and the economic situation at home.

Prime Minister, 2009 has been described as an “annus horribilis” for the Belgian economy. Can ordinary Belgians look forward to a better year in 2010?

At the end of 2008 there was the financial crisis. In our country the government took firm action and managed to overcome that crisis. But the crisis then turned into an economical crisis which damaged the consumer’s confidence. Hence, our companies got in trouble and we are now at the stage of full consequences for employment. I’m afraid lots of jobs will be lost in the coming months. We must be fully aware of this and do everything within our powers to avoid job loss as much as possible. On the other side, we are hopeful that economy will be reviving slightly in the second half of the year.

Pulling our weight in Afghanistan

President Obama is now sending over 30,000 fresh troops to Afghanistan to beef up the international effort. Countries like Belgium have been criticised for failing to pull their weight. Will Belgium be doing more for the international effort in Afghanistan in 2010?

I don’t agree with this criticism. We have little over 600 soldiers in Afghanistan and they are doing a very good job. General McCrystal - as well as Afghan military chiefs - confirmed during my meeting with him last December in Afghanistan that the Belgian troops are a very efficient and reliable partner. Of course when you compare to the American forces, 600 troops is little, but compared to many other countries, Belgium is doing a very considerable effort.

Prime Minister, you were recently in Afghanistan visiting our troops. You also spoke with President Karzai. Do you believe peace in that country is possible without a political settlement that takes account of the support that the Taliban enjoy among some sectors of the population?

The approach in Afghanistan is double. There is the military effort, but there is also the so-called civil approach, rebuilding the country. That is why, for example, Belgium is also sending some police officers and a magistrate. We also invest in development aid in the country, for that matter. So there is much more going on than just a military operation.

European priorities

Mr Leterme, you became Prime Minister as your predecessor Herman Van Rompuy was elected as the first European President. Belgium will soon also hold the rotating EU Presidency. What are our country’s priorities in Europe?

First of all the further implementation of the Treaty of Lisbon. We’ve worked eight years for this treaty to be accepted, now we should implement it as soon as possible. Furthermore, there are some issues that are already on the agenda: the social-economic program and climate change. Other important issues we will have to attend are the enlargement of the EU, the Stockholm program about justice, internal affairs and migration and the budget.

Political stability

Finally, international investments have been falling of late. This is largely due to the recession, but many people are also worried about Belgium’s political instability. Are you confident that government parties will be able to strike a deal on the community issues that divide them at the moment?

Former Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene is working on the B-H-V-file – the splitting of the Brussels Halle Vilvoorde constituency - right now.

We should give him space and time to work out a proposal, as the King asked him to do.