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Belgium: The last EU Presidency in the 9th term

22-12-2023

As we usher in the new year, Spain will hand over the presidency of the Council of the European Union over to Belgium on January 1st. Given that this transition aligns not only with the European elections but also with the Belgian federal and regional elections, all set for June 9, it promises to be an intriguing presidency. Belgium will not only be occupied with preparations for these election days, but the initial months will be particularly focused on concluding as many pending legislative proposals as possible. This will divide the Belgian presidency into two parts: the rush in January and February to conclude around 150 open European files and an effort to influence the direction of the next mandate in the second half of the presidency.

In this blog, our colleagues Daan de Haas, Valérie Mendes de León, and Sterre Schrijver analyse the key priorities and challenges of Belgium’s presidency, specifically in the areas of technology, healthcare, and industry.

The Peculiar Belgian Presidency

Belgium steps into an interesting role as the EU presidency unfolds. While preceding member states primarily influence the prioritisation of ongoing legislative proposals, Belgium takes the helm to either conclude or defer pending files. The first week of February is anticipated to mark the final opportunity to secure provisional agreements with the Council for publishing files before the summer of 2024. A similar deadline looms in early March, concerning files for the autumn of 2024. Urgency is paramount in finalising legislation before the handover, as not all files are guaranteed to be carried over to the new Parliament.

At the same time, member states and Directorates-General within the Commission are crafting their priorities for the upcoming Commission. This process concludes in the months leading up to the formation of a new Commission, enabling them to align their new mandate and work program with the established priorities of member states. While not determinative, Belgium plays an intriguing role in this scenario. By prioritising certain legislative proposals, organising events that are of interest to them, and highlighting policy themes that are important to them, the Belgians can give substance to their priorities.

Priorities of the presidency:

In early December, Belgian Prime Minister De Croo outlined the six priorities of the Belgian presidency: 1) defending fundamental rights, 2) upholding the rule of law and European democracy, 3) enhancing European competitiveness, 4) facilitating the green transition, 5) reinforcing the social and health agenda, 6) protecting people and borders and promoting the EU as a global player. These priorities were encapsulated by De Croo in the presidency’s motto: “Protect our people, strengthen our economy, and prepare for our shared future.”

Industry

The energy and climate transition is one of the top priorities of the Belgian presidency. According to the Belgians, ensuring affordable energy and reliable supply security is crucial, particularly in the face of geopolitical events and extreme climate phenomena. Belgium aims to accelerate the development of renewable and low-carbon energy sources and carriers. Additional investments in a flexible and integrated European energy network are therefore essential. Much attention will also be directed towards advancing the Industrial Green Deal, which is closely intertwined with the Green Deal, the flagship climate package aimed at achieving climate neutrality in Europe by 2050.

An important component of this Deal is the Net Zero Industry Act (NZIA). Belgium inherits significant progress made by its predecessor, Spain, meaning that interinstitutional negotiations—the final stage of the European legislative process—will commence swiftly. The responsibility lies with our southern neighbours to conclude this dossier. The NZIA is seen as a response to the U.S. plan to invest $369 billion in the green tech industry. The primary objective of the NZIA is to expedite the industrial deployment of crucial technologies necessary for supporting the green transition, ultimately enhancing the resilience and competitiveness of the European economy.

Another significant industrial dossier concerns the Energy Union, designed to reduce Europe’s dependence on imported energy and therewith to strengthen the EU’s strategic autonomy. Reforms of the European electricity market are integral to this initiative. In the current system, fossil fuel prices wield substantial influence over electricity prices. To mitigate this impact, the reforms aim to incentivize long-term contracts with non-fossil energy producers and enhance flexibility through measures, such as storage and demand response. With interinstitutional negotiations already underway, it falls to Belgium to bring these discussions to a conclusion.

Tech

In the realm of technology, Belgian officials are gearing up for the next Commission mandate, with priorities centred around the AI Act, online identity security, and the twin transition.

The significant success of the Spanish presidency lies in reaching an agreement on the AI Act on December 8th, following over 30 hours of negotiations. While a substantial portion of the technical details in the agreement is yet to be finalised, it falls on Belgium to conclude them. This immediately becomes one of Belgium’s priorities, along with settling certain aspects of the European digital identity framework (eIDAS) and further elaborating on the Digital Services Act.

Belgian Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, Mathieu Michel, brother of EU Council President Charles Michel, has been actively engaged in official visits in recent weeks, signalling his priorities. These include advocating for increased transparency regarding algorithms and online safety. Michel recognises a significant challenge in combating disinformation and fake profiles online, as outlined in the DSA, and advocates for additional measures.

Telecommunications Minister Petra de Sutter will focus on the twin transition during the presidency—transitioning to a more digital and sustainable society. This aligns with the European Commission’s similar ambition and is likely to become one of the primary goals for the upcoming Commission.

Healthcare

The policy priorities of the Belgian presidency cover a wide range of topics. In addition to the regular dossiers, labour market policy in healthcare is one of the priorities.

One file on which the Belgians aim to make progress is the Reform of the EU Pharmaceutical Legislation. This legislative package, consisting of a directive and regulation, is currently pending in the European Parliament. The votes in the parliamentary ENVI committee (Committee on the Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety) and the plenary vote on the negotiating position are expected in March and April, respectively. Given the upcoming European elections, it remains uncertain how much progress the Council can achieve on this dossier during the Belgian presidency. In any case, an agreement is not expected during the term of the current Parliament. According to Belgium, the priorities on this dossier include addressing medicine shortages and establishing incentives for drug development. The Belgian Health Attaché, Bjorn Gens, expressed the intention earlier this week to achieve a compromise among the member states on these two points.

Two other priority dossiers are the European Health Data Spaces (EHDS) and the regulation for quality and safety standards for substances of human origin (SoHo regulation). An agreement has recently been reached on the SoHo regulation between the Council and the Parliament – now it is up to Belgium to finalise the last technical details. Concerning the EHDS, the Belgian presidency appears to have a more substantial role. Trilogues for the EHDS began on December 14th. The Belgian presidency aims to conclude these negotiations.

This week, Gens also stated that Belgium wants to prioritise labour market policies in healthcare. Belgium aims to develop a strategy for healthcare workers and encourage the European Commission to take action on this issue, addressing challenges such as shortages in the healthcare sector.

Finally, the upcoming presidency has announced its intention to address certain longstanding issues, including tackling antimicrobial resistance (AMR), drug shortages, and addressing unmet medical needs (UMN). The specific proposals that the Council will put forward on these issues remain uncertain. AMR and UMN, among other aspects, are expected to be addressed through the reform of EU Pharmaceutical Legislation. Additionally, earlier this month, the European Commission presented a list of critical medicines to address potential shortages in the future. It will be interesting to see what the Belgian presidency can contribute to these efforts.

Conclusion

The Belgian presidency appears to face considerable challenges, ranging from the three elections (regional, national, and European) to the need to conclude a large number of files. The focus will be on the first three months of their presidency – during this time, the key legislative processes will need to be resolved. At the same time, it will be an opportune moment for businesses to pay attention to the priorities of the upcoming Commission and how they are addressed. Curious about what this presidency can mean for you? Get in touch!

"This will divide the Belgian presidency into two parts: the rush to conclude around 150 open European files and an effort to influence the direction of the next mandate."

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