Belgium’s coalition has taken pains to show a united front during its turn at the helm of the EU presidency. A major clash over the future of the Green Deal risks undermining those efforts.
While Belgium’s Greens are pushing for ambitious climate legislation, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo’s liberal Open VLD party has resisted stricter environmental protection measures and tried to show it is listening to Green Deal critics. The discrepancy has meant ministers chairing discussions at the EU level during Belgium’s presidency of the Council, which started in January, have opposing views on Green Deal legislation.
The split in the seven-party coalition became evident on Tuesday, when De Croo said he “welcomed” a decision by the European Commission’s to withdraw legislation aimed at halving pesticide use by 2030 in the EU amid an outburst of farmers’ anger across the bloc.
“Crucial we keep our farmers on board to a more sustainable future of farming, as part of our determination to get the Green Deal done,” De Croo wrote on X.
His reaction immediately drew the ire of his green coalition partners, reigniting concerns that election politics in Belgium — which holds a general election in June just as voters also elect a new European Parliament — will affect the government’s ability to act honest broker for the bloc’s 27 nations.
Deputy Prime Minister Petra de Sutter, who leads the Flemish Greens party in East Flanders, lashed out at De Croo, saying that “a better environment is not the enemy of agriculture. On the contrary.”
Climate and Environment Minister Zakia Khattabi, a member of the French-speaking Green party Ecolo, also lamented that “we are giving in to the easy way out and endangering the health of our land as well as human health” by delaying action against pesticides use.
It’s not the first time that Belgian ministers’ conflicting green views have burst into the open over the EU presidency.
The country’s agriculture minister, David Clarinval, a member of the liberal Mouvement Réformateur, upset coalition partners when he labeled the Green Deal as “punitive ecology” and blamed “excessive” environmental rules for the farmers’ protests.
“We cannot align ourselves with those who forget that there can be no agriculture without nature,” said Séverine de Laveleye, a Green member of Belgium’s federal parliament, deploring that “members of the government are taking positions that are so far removed from the scientific consensus.”
Working in silos
The pesticide reduction bill — which was rejected by the European Parliament in November — isn’t the only Green Deal file the Belgian coalition is fighting over.
Last year, De Croo’s government failed to reach a common position on the EU’s proposed deregulation of gene-edited crops — dubbed “new genomic techniques” — and agreed to abstain in a Council vote.
But Clarinval — who is now leading the negotiations on the file for the Belgian presidency — has pitched himself as a proponent of such technologies and made them a top priority for the current semester.
Belgium’s environment and agriculture ministries have also clashed over who should lead work on a Commission proposal to review the protection status of wolves. Despite a strong push by agriculture ministers to have a say on the matter, the Belgian presidency eventually decided that environment ministers would lead work on this file.
The question of who takes ownership of the Commission’s recent proposal to improve forest monitoring in the EU also caused a heated debate in the Belgian government, which finally agreed the presidency would create an ad hoc working group of environment and agricultural experts under the authority of the Agriculture Council.
“Everyone is a little bit playing on their own here,” said a Belgian official, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal coalition dynamics, pointing out that the coalition has always rested on shaky ground.
De Croo’s glee over the demise of the EU pesticide bill has exposed him to criticism that he is failing to uphold the neutrality that the country helming the rotating EU presidency is expected to observe.
Belgian daily De Morgen reported that de Croo pushed for the pesticides regulation to be withdrawn as part of a larger package of measures to respond to recent farmers’ protests across the bloc. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised after meeting protesting farmers last week to work with the Belgian presidency to deliver proposals to ease the administrative burden on farmers in time for a meeting of EU agriculture ministers on February 26.
A Belgian presidency spokesperson rejected that Belgium had breached its neutrality role.
The pesticides bill “is a very complicated file, but the presidency has remained an honest broker and always tried to make progress on it and abide by our commitment to try and conclude it before the end of the mandate,” the spokesperson said.
The decision to withdraw the legislation “is a unilateral decision from the Commission,” the spokesperson noted, noting that the presidency has “remained neutral and loyal to achieving this goal [of completing the Green Deal]. We are advancing the files that are on the table.”