Sophie Wilmès takes leave of absence as Belgian foreign minister

Belgian Foreign Minister — and former prime minister — Sophie Wilmès is stepping down to care of her sick husband, she announced on Twitter on Thursday, with Prime Minister Alexander De Croo taking charge of the foreign affairs portfolio.

Wilmès’ husband, Christopher, has brain cancer. She said that providing care and doing her job — which she said requires “rigor, availability and a total commitment” — would “not allow me to provide the help and comfort that Christopher and our children will need during this difficult period.” As a result, she said she was stepping away for the time being.

During her leave, her portfolios — which include foreign affairs, European affairs, foreign trade and Belgium’s federal cultural institutions — will be covered by De Croo, from the Flemish liberal party Open VLD, and two of her fellow Francophone liberals, David Clarinval and Mathieu Michel.

De Croo will inherit the biggest portfolio, taking on foreign and European affairs, which is likely to fuel rumors that he is looking for a top international job after his tenure as prime minister ends.

Clarinval, currently in charge of agriculture, will handle foreign trade.

Michel, who is secretary of state in charge of digitalization and is the brother of European Council President Charles Michel, will manage the federal cultural institutions.

A relatively unknown figure until she led the country through the initial waves of the coronavirus pandemic, Wilmès was the country’s first female prime minister, leading a caretaker government from 2019 to 2020. She was made foreign minister when De Croo took over as head of the government.

Wilmès’ name circulated as a possible contender to be the next NATO secretary general, although incumbent Jens Stoltenberg’s term has now been extended.

Wilmès and her family will consider the next steps of her career during the summer, her statement said. If Wilmès were to resign as minister, it’s likely her portfolio would be divided up, as a wide range of Belgian diplomats and officials said they were worried about one person handling so much during the Belgian presidency of the Council of the EU in 2024.

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