Today, Tuesday 19 October, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for European Affairs Sophie Wilmès and her ministerial colleagues met in Luxembourg for the General Affairs Council. The ministers held a horizontal discussion on the annual rule of law dialogue, the Conference on the Future of Europe and the preparation of the European Council at the end of this week.


Annual Rule of Law Dialogue

The Council held a discussion on the European Commission’s second Rule of Law report, in which the Commission assesses respect for the rule of law in Member States. Belgium welcomes the new report and supports the Commission in its plan to make specific recommendations for each Member State as from next year.

However, the focus of the discussion subsequently shifted to a debate on the ruling by the Polish Constitutional Court of 7 October. On behalf of the Benelux, Deputy Prime Minister Wilmès expressed the deep concern of our three countries on this development.

The Benelux countries stand fully behind Commission President Von der Leyen, who this morning underscored that the ruling of the Polish Constitutional Court undermines the safeguarding of the independence of the judiciary as provided for by the Treaty, and thus the protection of citizens’ rights. This is also the first time that a Constitutional Court has ruled that the EU Treaties are incompatible with the national constitution.

Sophie Wilmès, on behalf of the 3 Benelux countries: “This is a very worrying development. This ruling calls into question the foundations of the European Union and the unity of the European legal system. This is fundamental to ensuring equal rights, legal certainty and mutual trust between Member States”.

The ruling by the Polish Constitutional Court is currently being examined by the Commission. The Benelux is calling on the latter to share its findings with Member States and unequivocally highlight the consequences of ignoring EU legislation in all relevant fields of European cooperation. It must be the basis for permanent dialogue.

“We believe that swift and decisive action must be taken against systemic threats to the rule of law, in a number of member states. That infringement proceedings have been initiated in this case goes without saying, but this doesn’t go far enough. We are therefore also calling on the Commission to make use of the rule of law conditionality mechanism as rapidly as possible, where applicable, and to seriously consider additional steps to address the inherent risks that a deterioration of the rule of law poses to future disbursements of funds, including during the decision-making process for the approval of the Recovery and Resilience Plan,” the Benelux confirmed.


Preparation of the European Council

The EU Ministers for European Affairs also prepared the European Council of 21-22 October. The main themes on the agenda are energy prices, Covid-19 and migration.

  • Energy prices

A combination of factors, including increased prices for natural gas and higher demand post-Covid, has prompted a significant rise in electricity prices throughout the EU. Belgium therefore welcomes the range of short-term and medium-term measures proposed by the European Commission – measures that Member States can take at national level to protect vulnerable families and support businesses.

Sophie Wilmès: “Our country is calling on the Commission and the Council to take measures to limit excessive price fluctuations, to bolster the one-off and structural measures taken by the federal government last week to keep the energy bills of households and businesses under control. It is essential that Europe helps us take action when energy prices are rising, and also consults with third countries in this regard.

  • Covid-19

Now that the pandemic is once again flaring up in large parts of Europe, our country remains particularly vigilant. As such, Belgium is urging all Member States to build up sufficient capacity for genome sequencing in order to detect and monitor new variants of the virus more rapidly.

In order to avoid a patchwork of accreditation systems, our country advocates greater harmonisation in the accreditation of vaccination certificates from third countries. To date, only 13 vaccination certificates have been recognised by the EU.

Our country is also working towards universal access to vaccines by taking on the role of facilitator for EU donations of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and by already donating 1.6 million vaccines itself, which should rise to 4 million by the end of this year. On a side note, Belgium is by far the largest EU exporter with 553 million vaccine doses exported as of early February 2021 – or over half of total EU exports.

  • Migration

Belgium welcomes the progress made in the discussion on the Asylum and Migration Pact proposed by the European Commission last year, which includes rules for a more effective return policy, more efficient asylum procedures and a new solidarity mechanism for the distribution of asylum seekers. Belgium would like priority to be given to specific parts of the Pact, in particular those pertaining to border measures.

“Our country reiterates the importance of respecting international law in these border procedures, and refers to the positive impact of partnerships with countries of origin that help save lives. We believe that balancing the responsibility of the Member States at the external borders with the solidarity of the others is crucial. In this spirit, and with full respect for human rights, Belgium advocates strengthening measures at the borders and limiting secondary movements within the EU, but we are also ready to participate in a structural solidarity mechanism,” concluded Sophie Wilmès.


Conference on the Future of Europe

Finally, the Council also took stock of the evolution of the Conference on the Future of Europe and Ministers detailed the activities being organised in their Member States. On 8 October, our country kicked off the Belgian component of the Conference.

Sophie Wilmès: “Belgium is making a conscientious effort for the Conference on the Future, based on the conviction that people should be able to contribute to a Europe that has such a major impact on their day-to-day lives. One of the initiatives is the organisation of a citizens’ panel which, starting this week, will spend three weekends making recommendations on how citizens can have a say in the EU decision-making process. Belgium is one of the few countries with a panel of this envergure.” One citizen from the panel will travel to Strasbourg in December to present the recommendations.