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Belgium's bold EU Council agenda

January 1, 2024

Belgium assumes the presidency of the EU Council on January 1. It aims to carry out an ambitious agenda before Europe and Belgium switch to election campaign mode later in the year.

Belgian EU Presidency Logo seen on a screen
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo wants to push through laws that will facilitate a green restructuring of the economy and increase Europe's global competitivenessImage: Philip Reynaer/Photo News/IMAGO

Asked what makes Belgium especially suited to take over the presidency of the EU Council in January, a smiling Foreign Minster Hadja Lahbib recently said "compromis a la belge [Belgian compromise], that is our secret." At the December presentation of Belgium's presidency agenda, she added that "we are better in finding solutions than creating problems."

Lahbib, who is from the French-speaking region of Wallonia, only entered politics a year-and-a-half ago after a career as a television journalist. She describes Belgium as a "multilingual, multiethnic country with many ideas" that is used to discussions and seeking out compromise. Lahbib herself was born to Algerian immigrant parents.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has a challenging EU presidency ahead of himImage: European Council

It's up to the Belgian presidency to finalize over 100 outstanding legislative projects in the European Union, together with the European Parliament, until the end of April. Among them are efforts to reform asylum processing in the bloc and regulate artificial intelligence.

At the end of April, the European Parliament will meet for its last plenary session before the European elections are held in the first week of June. Any legislative projects that haven't been completed by then will have to be tackled by the next European Parliament and a newly formed European Commission in the fall.

Time is pressing

The Belgian government has little time to waste. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who hails from Belgium's Dutch-speaking Flanders region, wants to push through laws that will facilitate a green restructuring of the economy and increase Europe's global competitiveness. De Croo has said Europeans expect the EU to deliver results ahead of the European elections.

"That means protecting our people, that means strengthening our economy, that means preparing a shared future," said De Croo, summarizing Belgium's agenda for the presidency. "For Belgium it is the 13th time that we will take over the presidency. We should be knowing what we are doing, [and] I am convinced that we have quite some experience."

At a special summit on February 1, the Belgian government must try to work out a long-term EU budget that includes €50 billion ($55.3 billion) in aid for war-torn Ukraine. At the last EU summit in December, Hungary blocked this with a veto.

Belgian Prime Minster Alexander De Croo must find a way to work together with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor OrbanImage: Omar Havana/AP/picture alliance

"It is important that we show our continued support for Ukraine," said De Croo, adding that "the unity of that union will be of critical importance to determine our shared success in the many challenges that are ahead." He did not, however, spell out how he intends to change the mind of  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Working with euroskeptic Hungary is difficult, but cooperation is necessary because Hungary will take over the rotating presidency in the second half of 2024, after Belgium. Hearings will be held over rule of law issues in Hungary, according to Foreign Minster Lahbib. Even so, she remains optimistic. "We work in a trio, for me it is a presidency like any other."

But it remains unclear whether the first intergovernmental talks on the agreed opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova will take place in the first half of 2024. Belgium wants to focus on enlarging the bloc and preparing the EU to take in new members.

Hungary criticizes Ukraine's EU prospects


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Urgently needed reforms

The EU cannot continue operating as before, according to Janis Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Centre. Discussions about the EU's internal mechanisms and strategic foreign policy goals are urgently needed, he said at an event in December.

The coming year, Emmanouilidis said, poses many potential challenges for the bloc, among them possible Russian expansionism toward EU borders, a rightward lurch in the European elections and the possible reelection of Donald Trump in the United States.

"If Putin is watching us, if the European elections don't go well, if the US elections don't go well, he might challenge us," said Emmanouilidis. "Are we prepared for such a situation?" He also said "the old logic no longer works, but the fact that we have at least understood how bad the situation is, that we are more brutally honest, is good news, not bad news." That's why, he said, strategic discussions are overdue under the Belgian presidency.

Russian threat forces NATO to adapt its strategy


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Some Belgian journalists, however, doubt the Belgian government has the strength to push through its ambitious agenda, with the country's local, regional and federal elections set to take place alongside June's European elections. It's far from clear whether Belgium's seven-party coalition government can stay in power.

The alliance comprises the Socialists, Greens, Liberals and Christian Democrats but is falling behind in the polls. Right-wing parties and radical right-wing separatists in Flanders, on the other hand, are making gains. Their rise could make forming a government even more complicated. After the last election, it took almost 500 days for the current coalition to coalesce.

Prime Minister De Croo, however, doesn't believe the election campaign will complicate or influence his country's EU Council presidency, though he himself is unlikely to return as head of government. His party, the Flemish Liberals, have plummeted in the polls.

This article was originally written in German.

Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union
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