“Protect, strengthen, prepare”: The Belgian Presidency’s priorities outlined

With the slogan “protect, strengthen, prepare” Belgium takes over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The land of Manneken Pis will hold the Presidency in the first half of 2024, from 1 January to 30 June and has identified 6 general priorities that will guide its Presidency:

  1. Defending rule of law, democracy, and unity
  2. Strengthening EU competitiveness
  3. Pursuing a green and just transition
  4. Reinforcing the EU social and health agenda
  5. Protecting people and borders
  6. Promoting a global Europe

In the field of Education and Training, Belgium plans to strengthen the European Education Area, enhance the quality and equity of education, and promote Lifelong Learning. It also focuses on making mobility for learners and educators across Europe easier and to start discussions on the next higher education package. The Presidency’s agenda includes addressing digital education and teacher shortages, while placing emphasis on youth participation, empowerment, and inclusion.

SOLIDAR Foundation applauds the central role Lifelong Learning plays in the Presidency’s programme. Belgium acknowledges the importance of Lifelong Learning in today’s continuously changing world and underlines the pressing need to create an accessible learning society that empowers and motivates learners to participate in Lifelong Learning with the aim of supporting both their personal and professional development. In addition, SOLIDAR supports the Presidency’s focus on ensuring qualitative, inclusive and accessible digital education. Belgium plans to facilitate an exchange of Member States’ needs for the successful implementation of digital education policy and initiate a reflection on the Digital Education Action Plan’s (DEAP) progress report.

SOLIDAR regrets that the programme does not mention anything related to funding, bearing in mind the proposals made last November by the Spanish Presidency which proposes significant cuts to all education, training, research, sports and youth EU programmes (read the Erasmus+ Coalition reaction here). We underline the need to allocate adequate resources to invest in education  and training which is essential for achieving inclusive and just societies.

The Presidency places a significant emphasis on the inclusion of citizens in democratic participation. To achieve this objective the Presidency is dedicated to defending the rule of law, democracy and unity within the European Union. It highlights the importance of fundamental rights, the protection of individuals’ freedom, ensuring equality, non-discrimination and promoting citizens’ well-being. In addition, it commits to strengthen the citizens’ empowerment with a particular focus on youth participation in democratic processes. While SOLIDAR welcomes the prioritisation of democratic values and citizens empowerment, it is crucial to extend its impact to all people residing in Europe irrespective of their status by implementing inclusive policies and fostering and protecting the work of organised civil society in promoting civic participation. To this end, we look forward to seeing concrete steps taken towards the implementation of a structured civil dialogue and the creation of an enabling civic space for civil society, which is worryingly shrinking. This should not be overlooked by the Presidency, especially in view of the upcoming EU elections.

SOLIDAR welcomes the Belgian Presidency’s decision to make “just transition” one of its three environmental priorities and applauds its commitment to develop a comprehensive EU policy framework for a just transition that embodies social, economic and territorial fairness, addresses the needs of those disadvantaged by the green transition and aims to fight poverty, reduce inequalities and ensure human well-being within a thriving natural environment. To achieve this objective, the Belgian Presidency has asked the European Economic and Social Committee to draw up an Exploratory Opinion, is organising a high-level European Conference on Just Transition on 4 and 5 March 2024 and will adopt Council Conclusions on just transition and the other two environmental priorities: circular economy and resilience to climate change.

Belgium is taking on the leadership of the Council of the EU at a key moment for EU’s migration and asylum policy, as acknowledged by the Presidency. The roadmap agreed with the European Parliament in the view of adopting EU migration and asylum reforms will reach its term in the next four months and in December 2023, an overwhelmingly negative agreement was found on the EU Pact, one that would weaken European asylum systems and threaten fundamental rights of people on the move. Against this backdrop, SOLIDAR contends the best way to proceed with the Pact in a manner that is in line with human rights and international law is by actively pushing the technical negotiations towards reducing detention, discrimination and derogations to legal safeguards, and realizing a fair sharing of responsibility for asylum-applicants. It would be a good occasion to finally have the Belgian government’s practices comply with EU and Belgian law on reception conditions, by giving shelter to the thousands of asylum-applicants who are denied it and put on a federal waiting list, de facto pushed into homelessness.

When it comes to social policies, the Belgian Presidency declares that it wants to “build and ambitious social agenda” rooted in the European Pillar of Social Rights. SOLIDAR could not agree more with this ambition and is thrilled to cooperate with the Presidency in this direction. In particular, we welcome the mention of social economy as a key area of work for Belgium, as we see social economy as one of the main paths to move to a people and planet-centered economic model.

This necessary shift of the economic model needs to be sustained, among other things, by a European Semester with a strong social connotation which should contrast the return to austerity that we are witnessing with the review of the EU economic governance. For this to happen, civil society must be meaningfully and structurally involved in the Semester, a crucial element that regrettably the Presidency does not mention in its programme. In the same way, Belgium highlights the key role played by social dialogue in ensuring fair working conditions and access to social protection – which is of course vital – but forgets to recognise the importance of civil society in protecting the social rights of the most marginalised groups, like the advocacy for an adequate minimum income led by many CSOs demonstrates. This confirms the need for a more concrete commitment for civil dialogue highlighted above.

At the same time, SOLIDAR laments that the Belgian Presidency adopted a purely macro-economic language when describing its plans related to employment. Surely increasing employment rates is of utmost importance, but the focus should be on the quality of such jobs and their positive impact on society, and growth-related ambitions should be limited by environmental concerns and objectives. This last perspective is regrettably lacking in the Belgian Presidency’s  programme under point 2.

When it comes to “Promoting a Global Europe”, the Presidency expresses a clear commitment to multilateralism and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with a special emphasis on the promotion of universal access to health care. It also reiterates its engagement tofinish pending tasks (such as the Directive on corporate sustainability due diligence as well the proposal for a Regulation on prohibiting products made with forced labour); to keep building upon the renewed bi-regional relations with Latin America and the Caribbean Countries and strengthening the relations and the cooperation with Africa and other regions of the world.

It also expresses its willingness to integrate the two-years old Global Gateway Strategy into all aspects of EU external relations and commits to hold a Council stocktaking exercise on the design and implementation of the strategy. While SOLIDAR welcomes the Presidency’s commitment to ensure that the environmental, social sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals “remain at the heart of Council deliberations on this strategy”, it considers that further efforts shall be made to increase the transparency of the projects’ selection process as well as the ex-ante social and environmental assessment of the impacts of those projects. Moreover, while promoting multilateralism, the Presidency keeps promoting a Europe-interest-first approach. Indeed, while there is a clear objective on the EU’s diversification of its exports and supply chains to secure access to critical raw materials and innovative technologies, which are essential to the twin transition and crucial for the EU’s strategic autonomy, nothing is said on the partners countries’ needed support to develop their own just transition plans.

Interested in reading more? You can find the complete programme of the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union here.