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National election for Belgium to become EU president looms – POLITICO

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This article is part of the special report of the Belgian EU Presidency..

Brussels — Ceci n’est pas une campagne électorale.

As Belgium prepares for a six-month term as president of the Council of the European Union starting January 1, the country’s political attention is already focused on another date: Belgium’s next elections6 It is aimed at the 9th of the month.

Belgian diplomats and advisers will make it clear to their bosses that the EU presidency, with its photo ops, red carpets and informal summits, can be a very useful tool in a heated domestic campaign.

“Other presidents in the past have faced similar situations, such as France in 2022 and more recently Spain. This does not prevent them from respecting the presidency,” Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the European Union said. Hajah Rahbib told POLITICO.

However, unlike in Belgium’s elections, the major political parties in other countries’ votes did not question the country’s very existence.

Belgium’s far-right Vlaams-Beran party, which wants to turn the country’s northern Flanders region into a fully independent breakaway state, has long been in the lead, according to a POLITICO poll.

Fears of the rise of far-right forces, especially after their victory in the neighboring Netherlands, are putting further political pressure on the country of 11.6 million people, which has a complex government structure.

Belgium’s elections will not prevent the country, known for its compromises, from playing a leading role in Europe. But conversations with dozens of Belgian diplomats, aides and politicians painted a picture of the election as the elephant in the presidential palace.

Ferdie de Ville, a professor of European political economy at Ghent University, said: “Last time elections were held before the presidential inauguration, which gave diplomats a lot of autonomy to play the role of honest brokers.” , that was good.” He is referring to his time as president of the Belgian Council in 2010, when Belgium was without a government for more than 500 days.

“Now, because presidential terms overlap with elections, there is a much greater risk that campaigns will taint the presidency.”

Convenient international stage

For Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, spending time in the EU’s spotlight is an opportunity to improve his standing as a European statesman.

Mr. Descroux, who currently heads a seven-party coalition spanning four factions and two languages, has little chance of staying on as prime minister after the election. His party, already struggling, has been thrown into turmoil following October’s terrorist attacks in Brussels.

Although the prime minister has denied interest, Mr Decroux’s name remains linked to the EU’s top job. Brokering deals and, just as importantly, having a seat at the table when a major split in top jobs is taking place could improve his chances, or at least his It has the potential to increase national recognition.

De Croo, a member of the centrist, free-market Free Democratic Party of Flanders, is expected to be a key figure during his term as president. However, Foreign Minister Rahbib’s role will also be central. She will be Minister of Trade as well as the EU and will chair various Council meetings.

This is a heavy resume for the former TV anchor, who only started the job in the summer of 2022. Her critics accused her of being politically inexperienced, especially when her decision to issue visas to Iranian officials in the summer threatened her resignation.

But most diplomats stressed that she had now developed into the right person for the job. “She is very cautious,” said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak freely. “She’s very diplomatic, sticks to her own rules and doesn’t bluff.”

future headaches

Waiting for the Belgians, on the other hand, is a tough task.

The other 26 EU countries expect Belgium to submit important files ranging from a review of the politically sensitive EU budget, including aid to Ukraine, to a new asylum and migration deal. The issue also has a major impact on Belgium, as the country’s own immigration policies result in a lack of shelter for single male asylum seekers.

Projection of the Belgian Parliament building

For more information on polling data across Europe, please visit: politiko Opinion poll poll.

It is also Belgium’s responsibility to review the future enlargement of the EU. The EU will need to consider what intra-European reforms are needed to see if it is ready to absorb new member states such as Ukraine and Moldova.

Diplomats admit it will be a race against time to reach a compromise between EU countries and the European Parliament. Belgium is therefore preparing a delicate political exercise to determine which files are still viable and which need to be completely removed. What makes this exercise even more difficult is that the country is divided into Francophone and Dutch-speaking regions, with power-sharing arrangements in place where some council meetings are chaired by regional ministers rather than federal ministers. That’s true.

In addition to finalizing important legislative documents, Belgium must also keep an eye on Hungary, the country it will hold the presidency of in late 2024, led by Eurosceptic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

“There is a certain pressure on Belgians to preserve important files and prepare for after the European elections,” said Hendrik Voss, professor of European studies at Ghent University. By the way, the European elections will be held at the same time as the Belgian elections.

“Hungary will play such an important role because it will just take charge of the new European Commission when it comes into being.”

Hanne Cokelaere contributed reporting.

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