Belgium aims to close negotiations on EU open files, focus on bloc’s future
Institutional reforms, competitiveness, and protection of the European way of life are at the heart of Belgium’s EU Council presidency programme in the first half of 2024, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib unveiled at an event on Friday (8 December).
Belgium is taking over the helm of the presidency of the Council from Spain in January and will be succeeded by Budapest in July.
The semester will be heavily impacted by the institutional transition the EU is about to embark on, as the mandate of the European Commission and Parliament come to an end ahead of the next European elections in June.
Around 150 legal files are still outstanding and the presidency will try to close as many as possible before the end of April when the Parliament’s session ends.
“There are expectations that we must deliver and that is what we are about to do,” De Croo told reporters.
He also looked to the future of the EU. The motto of the presidency will be “protect our people”, “strengthen our economy” and “prepare for our shared future”, he added.
De Croo emphasised the need to discuss reforming the bloc, boosting innovation, and competitiveness of the industry, protecting the EU’s external borders, and working for peace.
Reform of the EU
De Croo said the presidency would “prioritise the internal reforms which are necessary to maintain a functioning union and to be able to act decisively in the interests of our Europeans and reforms”.
“Is the EU and its institutions and its functioning fit for the future? What type of union do we want to be in 2029? What are the priorities that we need to act on? How do we adapt?” he asked.
An “enlargement summit” is planned on 19 April, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ‘big bang’ 2004 enlargement when ten new countries – Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia – joined the EU, Lahbib announced.
De Croo said that “we will have to reform the union, its policies, its budgets, institutions, in the view of a possible future enlargement” of the bloc to the east and the Western Balkans in the southeast.
He however insited that the discussion will not focus on unanimity voting and expanding the use of qualified majority voting even though Belgium supports that idea, or on the future make-up of the College of Commissioners.
“I think there are steps that are less conflictual and known to make progress. For us, it is about how can we have an EU that decides in a swifter way and keep unity.”
More EU in the world
“We have a horrific war on the European continent, we have a terrible war happening in the Middle East. (…) We know that we have a responsibility to play”, De Croo said, without elaborating.
More specifically, on Israel and Palestine, Lahbib said that Belgium “stands ready to host any initiative to reinforce the dialogue”.
On the external relationships of the EU, De Croo said that “protecting” the EU’s borders is also on top of the agenda to protect the Europeans, and hoped for a deal on the Asylum and Migration Pact before the end of 2023.
Along those lines, “preserving Europe’s unity in protecting and supporting Ukraine” will also play a part, De Croo said, adding that the EU “will continue” helping Ukraine in its fight against Russia, be it with military support, or financial support.
Talking about the faltering state of the economy, he said “we urgently need to enhance the EU’s competitiveness on the global stage”, while at the same time, delivering on the green, the digital, and the just transition.
Belgium will be “working with the Commission to make the green agenda also a growth agenda”, he stressed when asked how he sees the future of the Green Deal.
Lahbib also said that “special attention” will be put on the reports commissioned from Mario Draghi on the state of the competitiveness of the EU, and Enrico Letta’s on the future of the single market.
She added that the European defence and technology industrial base should be “consolidated”.