Migration top of the agenda as Belgium outlines priorities for its Council of the EU presidency

Ambassador Willem van de Voorde, Belgium’s permanent representative to the EU, speaks to journalist Ana Fota

By Ana Fota

Ana Fota is a reporter based in Brussels, with previous work published by The New York Times, Politico, Euronews and others.

15 Dec 2023

When Belgium takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in January, it will be its 13th time at the helm. The country will be closing out the current mandate and seeing the bloc through its upcoming election cycle, in June 2024. That leaves it with a very limited window - about two months, until the end of February - to make progress on files stuck in the negotiation phase.

Ambassador Willem van de Voorde, Belgium’s permanent representative to the EU, spoke to The Parliament about his priorities and vision for the next six months at an event hosted in the European Parliament.

“A substantial amount of legislative work will remain on the table at the beginning of January,” he said. “Our job is to work through the agenda as diligently as possible, even though the time frame is incredibly short.”

The EU is closer than ever to clinching a deal on a new Migration Pact that would streamline processes rather than leaving member states to act on a case-by-case crisis management basis.

The current package, which has been on the table since September 2020, was at the “time a new effort to better organize a mechanism of solidarity and responsibility," the ambassador said. Coming to an agreement within the Council and with the Parliament could happen soon, he said, adding that “the progress is real but difficult.”

“Every member state looks at the migration challenge from its own perspective, which changes if you’re at the Southern border, dealing with arrivals, or in the area where we are,” van de Voorde said, explaining that many of the cases Belgium deals with are those of secondary migration - serving not as individuals’ entry point into the EU, but as the desired destination they make their way towards. “That secondary migration is filling our reception capacity, thereby blocking the space for real refugees, which we also want to help.”

“Let’s be very clear, the day we have an agreement, the challenge of migration will not stop. It’s a phenomenon that will accompany the rest of our lives.”

 

But while the package could soon be adopted, van de Voorde warns that will not be the end of the road. “Let’s be very clear,” he said, “the day we have an agreement, the challenge of migration will not stop. It’s a phenomenon that will accompany the rest of our lives.”

Migration aside, Belgium has also been the most fervent supporter of the adoption of a new Critical Medicines Act. It has been particularly vocal about the creation of a Critical Medicines Alliance, through which coordinated action would be taken at the EU  level to combat shortages of high-risk, critical medicines such as antibiotics. Belgium itself has experienced a critical shortage of diabetes drug Ozempic.

“We have a widely developed pharmaceutical industry, it gives us a kind of privileged look at the challenges prevalent in the health sector,” the ambassador said, explaining that there will likely not be enough time for this file to be adopted within the next six months. “That probably will be for the next Commission, but we want to help this Commission get a head start with it in 2024.”

Belgium will also recommend the establishment of an EU agency to screen algorithms, out of concern the bloc won’t benefit from sufficient technical comprehension of AI through existing agencies, thus affecting enforcement. The new agency would follow the European Medicines Agency’s model.

The presidency’s “second phase,” as the ambassador put it, will begin in March and will focus on the preparation and adoption of a strategic framework, guiding the next mandate’s agenda.

During the Q&A session following the discussion, an MEP in the audience brought up the topic of sanctions against Russia for its full-scale invasion in Ukraine. He urged the Belgian presidency to focus on ensuring current sanctions are enforced and consequential, rather than on the implementation of a new 12th package.

Van de Voorde agreed. The war in Ukraine, he said, is “still a direct threat to our security, with the potential to destabilize us much more.”



 

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