On January 1st, Belgium took over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council. Coming after Spain and before Hungary, Belgium is the second country to assume the presidency under the current trio, the term which refers to three successive presidencies where three countries establish a common programme. However, more than the programme, Belgium’s presidency is constrained by the impending European parliamentary elections slated to take place on June 6-9 this year. Indeed, Belgium is under pressure to close important legislative dossiers initiated by the current Commission before the elections put everything on hold. Further complicating this task, jockeying for top EU jobs following the elections is already getting under way and will likely divert ever more attention away from the current Commission’s dossiers in coming months. Given these constraints, what can we expect for the first half of 2024, a high-stakes year for the European Union?
As a founding member of the European Union and a historical consensus-builder within the institutions, Belgium has a lot to live up to. With more than 150 texts still going through the stages of the European legislative process, Belgium has set out six priorities to determine the files on which it will focus first and foremost. Those priorities are: “defending rule of law, democracy, and unity”, “strengthening Europe’s competitiveness”, “pursuing a green and just transition”, “reinforcing the social and health agenda”, “protecting people and borders”, and “promoting a global Europe”.
In practice, those priorities seem to indicate that the Belgian Presidency will help Commission head Ursula von der Leyen move forward on the Green Deal, the hotly contested reform of the Stability and Growth Pact, and the Pact on Asylum and Migration. On the Green Deal, the EU is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050. Several texts, such as the Net Zero Industry Act that aims to increase clean energy production in Europe, are already under negotiation, with the Commission also expected to put forward proposals on water access and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in coming weeks.
The possible reform of the Stability and Growth Pact is another hot button issue. The text meant to limit member states’ debt levels had been temporarily to give governments enough flexibility to face the COVID crisis and the war in Ukraine. EU states have since reached a compromise on reviewed rules but that compromise still has to be negotiated with the Parliament.
Last but not least, the Belgian Presidency has vowed to push the Pact on Asylum and Migration over the finish line. Immigration has been a crucial theme in elections around the continent so it is encouraging that all three main EU institutions agreed on a compromise text at the end of December. Its impending adoption could help pro-EU parties defend Brussels’ record in the summer’s electoral campaigns.
Indeed, MEPs and EU commissioners are sure to use any legislation passed successfully in coming months as evidence for the reelection/reappointment campaigns. This is especially apparent in Belgium where high-level Belgian politicians in the EU have already started vying for their next appointment. President of the European Council Charles Michel announced a few days ago that he would be running as MEP, even as his current mandate runs until November. If elected to the European Parliament, he will step down on July 16 well before his term is scheduled to end in November. And Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders has made it known that he was in the run to lead the human rights organization Council of Europe.
With this ambitious agenda, the Belgian Presidency only has a very narrow window for action. The current European Parliament’s final plenary session will take place on April 25 before giving way to the election campaign in May. Even more pressing, the last inter-institutional negotiations will take place in the first week of February. This means that Belgium will have to conclude trilogues by then, particularly on the remaining texts of the Green Deal. After this date, texts will be neither adopted nor published in the Official Journal until the first Plenary session of the newly elected European Parliament in July 2024.
In addition to the tight European calendar, Belgium has its own national elections that could potentially destabilize the country’s presidency as polls indicate that the current governing coalition will not have the votes to stay in power. Those national elections will likely take place on the same day as the European elections, somewhat reducing their impact on the presidency. However, the current coalition is likely to divert some of its efforts away from the EU and toward strengthening their poll numbers ahead of the vote. In addition, Belgium’s notoriously complicated coalition talks are likely to bring the country’s institutions to a crawl after the election, slowing down the handover to the Hungarian Presidency.
This brings us to another shadow looming above the Belgian Presidency, its controversial successor at the head of the European Council. Hungary is due to succeed Belgium on 1 July 2024. Budapest is currently embroiled in several proceedings brought by the European Commission over infringements of fundamental freedoms. The increasingly pro-Russian stance of Orban’s government is also a cause for concern as the war in Ukraine seems to stall. Reflecting those anxieties, last year, MEPs voted on a resolution calling for Hungary’s presidency to be cancelled or postponed, a possibility that had never been considered in the European treaties. What’s certain is that the difference between the Belgian and Hungarian presidencies is likely to be strongly felt. The process of appointing European top jobs could therefore begin early, under the Belgian presidency, to limit Hungary’s ability to be disruptive.
In this decisive year for the EU, the Belgian Presidency will have to work hard, especially in the first three months of its term. We can expect a fast-paced start to the Presidency, with a big push to close as many dossiers as possible to shore up the achievements of the outgoing European institutions. The European elections will then logically take center stage. After the vote, Belgium, by then likely brought to standstill by byzantine coalition talks, may struggle to influence the allocation of European top jobs.