This article is part of the Belgian Presidency of the EU special report.
BRUSSELS — Ceci n’est pas une campagne électorale.
As Belgium gears up for its six-month stint at the helm of the Council of the European Union from January 1, the country’s political attention is already fixed on another date: June 9, Belgium’s next election.
Belgian diplomats and advisers will make clear to their bosses that the EU presidency — complete with its photo-ops, red carpets and informal summits — could be a very useful tool for their heated national electoral campaigns.
“Other presidencies before us have faced similar circumstances, such as France in 2022 — or more recently, Spain. This has not prevented them from honoring their presidencies,” Belgian Foreign and EU Minister Hadja Lahbib told POLITICO.
However, unlike in Belgium’s election, leading parties on those other national ballots did not question the very existence of the country.
Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Belang party — which wants to turn the country’s northern region of Flanders into a fully independent, breakaway state — has long been ahead, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.
The specter of a far-right surge, especially after a far-right win in the neighboring Netherlands, is putting extra political pressure on the country of 11.6 million inhabitants with its intricate governmental structure.
Belgium’s election won’t prevent the country, known for its compromise-making, from playing its role leading Europe. But conversations with dozens of Belgian diplomats, aides and politicians have painted a picture of the election as the elephant in the room of the presidency.
“Last time, we had elections before the presidency, and that was good because it gave a lot of autonomy to diplomats to play the role of honest broker,” said Ferdi De Ville, a professor of European political economy at the University of Ghent. He’s referring to the 2010 Belgian presidency of the Council, which occurred when the country was without a government for more than 500 days.
“Now, the presidency will coincide with the election, so the risk for the campaign contaminating the presidency is much bigger.”
Convenient international stage
For Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, time in the hot seat of the EU is a convenient opportunity to increase his standing as a European statesman.
De Croo, who is currently leading a coalition of seven parties spanning four political families and two languages, has little chance of staying on as prime minister after the election. His party, which was already struggling, has been in turmoil in the wake of an October terrorist attack in Brussels.
Even though the prime minister has denied he is interested, De Croo’s name continues to be linked to EU top jobs. Brokering deals and, equally important, having a seat at the table when the great carving-up of top jobs is happening could boost his chances — or at the very least increase his national profile.
De Croo, who belongs to the centrist, free market-oriented Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats party, is set to be a key player during the presidency. But Foreign Minister Lahbib’s role will also play front and center — she is minister for the EU as well as for trade, which involves chairing a wide range of Council meetings.
It’s a heavy portfolio for the former television anchor, who only started the job in the summer of 2022. Critics have slammed her as politically inexperienced, especially when she appeared on the brink of resignation over the summer for handing out visas to Iranian officials.
Most diplomats, however, stressed that she has now grown into the job. “She is very careful,” said one diplomat, granted anonymity to speak freely. “She’s very diplomatic, she’ll stick to her lines and won’t go bluffing.”
Meanwhile, the work awaiting the Belgians is Herculean.
The other 26 EU countries will count on Belgium to deliver on key files, ranging from a politically sensitive review of the EU budget including support for Ukraine, to finalizing the new asylum and migration pact. That subject is loaded for Belgium, as its own migration policy has led to a lack of shelter for asylum seekers who are single and male.
BELGIUM NATIONAL PARLIAMENT SEAT PROJECTION
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
It’s also on the Belgians to review the EU’s future enlargement. They will have to work out which intra-European reforms are necessary to make sure the EU is ready to absorb new members such as Ukraine and Moldova.
Reaching compromises between EU countries and the European Parliament will be a race against the clock, diplomats acknowledged. Therefore, Belgium is preparing a delicate political exercise to see which files are still realistic — and which will have to be dropped altogether. Making that exercise extra challenging is that the country, divided into French-speaking and Dutch-speaking parts, has a power-sharing arrangement whereby some Council meetings will be chaired by regional rather than federal ministers.
On top of wrapping up key legislative files, Belgium will also have to keep an eye on the country that will hold the presidency in the second half of 2024 — Hungary, led by Euroskeptic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
“There is a certain pressure on the Belgians to lock in key files and to prepare the course for after the European election,” said Hendrik Vos, a professor of European studies the University of Ghent. That European election, incidentally, will be held at the same time as the Belgian election.
“Hungary will be in charge just when the new European Commission will get started and will thus play a less important role.”
Hanne Cokelaere contributed reporting.