Belgian Presidency to the EU Council: Three Issues to Watch
As Belgium takes over the Presidency of the EU Council, Global Europe Program expert Maša Ocvirk highlights key topics on Belgium's agenda for the EU for the next six months - from challenges regarding support for Ukraine to European Parliament elections taking place in June 2024.
On January 1, 2024, Belgium assumed the rotating Presidency of the European Union Council from Spain. For the next six months it will steer the work of the EU, notably towards the end of its 5-year institutional cycle (2019-2024). Despite this, the Belgian Presidency will have its hands full, as the EU continues to face cross-cutting challenges from the war in Ukraine to geo-economic tensions. Due to the European Parliament elections in June, it will, however, have less time to fulfill its agenda. This extra time crunch is a challenge in and of itself. The leftover files unaddressed by the Belgian Presidency will otherwise fall to the next European Commission and European Parliament. However, an added challenge will be threading the needle of compromise to reach agreements, as Europe slowly descends into campaign mode for the European Parliament elections as well as Belgium itself for national elections.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU has found itself amidst a heightened security and geopolitical landscape. This has amplified the need to rethink its strategic interests and ways to act on them. The Belgian Presidency motto “protect, strengthen, prepare” tries to directly address this reality. From rule of law to Europe’s industrial future, its six priorities focus on building and reinforcing the EU’s economic, democratic, security and defense capabilities, for a union resilient to external shocks and capable of acting. Belgium is taking over from Spain, who succeeded in reaching agreements on some major files such as the Pact on Migration and Asylum and Artificial Intelligence Act, however there remains a list of pending issues. Here are three to watch during the Belgian Presidency.
1. Supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes”
The last European Council Summit on December 14 and 15, 2023 exposed how fragile EU’s unified support for Ukraine is. A green light to open accession talks was only possible because Hungary’ Prime Minister Orban left the room. Yet, member states failed to reach an agreement on the Ukraine Facility, a 50 billion euro fund for a much-needed stable funding of Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction from 2024 to 2027. The upcoming extraordinary meeting of the European Council on February 1 will be a major test for the EU’s unwavering support of Ukraine. As the clock is ticking, the Belgian Presidency will need to find ways to avoid another potential veto from Hungary or explore potential workarounds to ensure both a compromise on a revised 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework and continued funding for Ukraine.
But this is only one piece of the Ukraine puzzle. As the war in Ukraine reaches the end of its second-year, debates about continued military support have intensified. With further support from the US in question, the pressure on Europe to close the potential weapons supply gap is getting higher and higher. While most of the military support has been bilateral, the EU has taken some unprecedented steps in building its defense production capabilities to help Ukraine. However, the results of the Act in Support of Ammunition Production (ASAP) to ramp up defense production and deliver 1 million rounds of ammunition by March 2024 have been underwhelming. The announced work on the European Defense Industrial Strategy is a good way for the EU to double down on its security and defense capabilities. However, in the short term the EU and its member states will need to find ways to continue delivering much needed military support to Ukraine.
2. What Strategic Direction for the EU?
The EU adopted its last Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024 in a different international context. Today, in the aftermath of a global pandemic, a war on its doorstep, and a potential regional escalation of the war in Gaza, it is dealing with a new set of challenges and geopolitical tensions. In a letter to EU leaders in June 2023, President of the European Council Charles Michel wrote that the next strategic agenda needs to answer “[w]hat kind of geopolitical and economic power [does the EU] want to become in the long-term, with potentially more than thirty member states”. First concrete discussions among EU leaders on the new strategic orientation for the Union already took place in November. The Belgian Presidency will now have to help bring these guidelines for the next institutional set-up across the finish line.
However, there is little benefit to strategic goals without the ability to act on them. In an essay on the passing of Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission and key figure in the European project, his former Chief of Staff Pascal Lammy credited the success of EU integration to “a sort of alignment of the national stars above Brussels.” The constellation in Brussels has since changed. While Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic have been stellar examples of joint EU efforts, the EU’s struggle to respond to the war in Gaza painted a sobering picture of its capabilities to act.
For many EU leaders the solution is internal reform. Germany and France have been spearheading this debate, including commissioning the Franco-German Report on EU Institutional Reform. While this topic is frequently on the EU Council’s agenda, there has been little concrete progress. Member states are struggling to find agreement on whether there should be a different institutional and decision-making set-up and how it should look. Yet, much of EU’s future development relies on these internal reforms, from the EU welcoming new member states to deeper economic and fiscal integration. The Belgian Presidency cannot bring this matter to a close, but there needs to be tangible progress on the next steps. Otherwise, the credibility of this debate is at stake.
3. Moving the Enlargement Agenda Forward
Now that the European Council agreed to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, the pressure is high to maintain this pace of action. Next on Ukraine and Moldova’s enlargement path is to receive a date for their first intergovernmental conferences. In the past this was easier said than done—North Macedonia and Albania waited almost two years. All eyes are set on March, when the Commission will release another progress report on reforms in Ukraine and Moldova, just in time for the EU leaders to discuss potential dates at their next meeting. However, the uncertainties around this issue at the last European Council Summit indicate that the Belgian Presidency will not have an easy task to move things forward. Managing expectations will therefore be crucial to maintain the credibility of the enlargement process and resolve on both sides of the aisle, especially as the debate on EU reform before or alongside enlargement continues.
When it comes to the Western Balkans the Belgian Presidency will have a relatively light agenda. In March, the European Commission is set to release another assessment of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s reform progress to recommend opening accession negotiations. With little progress expected, it remains to be seen whether and how the European Council will tackle this question, and how this will play into the leaders’ discussion on Ukraine and Moldova. The transformative potential of the enlargement process in Western Balkans seems to have lost its way. For that reason, the Commission has recently proposed the Growth Plan—additional financial aid to incentivize reforms in the region. Despite being seen as the “magic bullet” for bringing the Western Balkans back on track, the recent protests of the election results in Serbia, marred by fraud allegations, and the concerning separatist rhetoric from Milorad Dodik, show the EU needs to remain engaged with the region on multiple levels.
Mirrored Challenges Ahead
The Belgian Presidency, like all other presidencies before, is dealing with its own set of challenges. This includes holding national elections in June; current polling shows the far-right Vlaams Belang party— with open separatist stances—is projected to win. While this would not directly affect the Belgian Presidency, it risks pulling attention and bandwidth from the presidency. It also continues a concerning trend of surging support for extreme right-wing parties across Europe, which could further impact the already fragile dynamics in the European Council.
In the next six months the Belgian Presidency will have its hands full steering the EU agenda. It will have to handle shorter deadlines to deliver agreements on concrete policies—with the revision of the 2021-2027 MFF being the first large test. It will have to see through debates on what kind of a power the EU wants to become. On top of that, it might now have to deal with the search for a new president of the European Council, after Charles Michel announced he is running for a seat in the European Parliament. As an honest broker, the Belgian Presidency will therefore have an unenviable, but commendable responsibility to find agreement on policies and long-term visions for the EU, all while Europe is descending into campaign mode.
About the Author
Global Europe Program
The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, US-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media. Read more