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Belgian government in crisis over fate of foreign minister in Iran visas dispute

Belgian government in crisis over fate of foreign minister in Iran visas dispute

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Belgian government in crisis over fate of foreign minister in Iran visas dispute

BRUSSELS — Belgium risks starting another episode of its well-known political turmoil. This time, it’s Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib who could upset things.

When Lahbib is grilled by Belgian lawmakers on Monday, some of her coalition partners hope for apologies for how she handled an Iranian delegation that attended a summit in Brussels earlier this month. If none are forthcoming, it would risk consequences beyond her own possible resignation.

“Hadja Lahbib’s survival is a question of the government’s survival,” said a Belgian official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

Lahbib is under fire over the delivery of visas to 14 Iranian officials, including Tehran Mayor Alireza Zakani — a regime hard-liner — to attend the Brussels Urban Summit last week. The saga has already led to the resignation of Brussels Secretary of State Pascal Smet. 

An earlier appearance by Lahbib in the Belgian parliament did not convince members from both the opposition and some of her own government partners, even though Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo tried to assure the legislature last week that “the incident was closed.”

For De Croo’s coalition partners, the issue at hand is no longer the Iranian visas as such, but the way Lahbib mishandled the fallout. The Greens and the Socialists especially accuse her of not being transparent enough with the parliament.

In theory, a heartfelt apology by Lahbib should be enough to turn the page. But that’s a no-go for Lahbib’s party president, Georges-Louis Bouchez, who has stressed that Lahbib did nothing wrong. It was Bouchez who hand-picked the former reporter about a year ago to become the country’s foreign minister, despite her lack of political experience.

If the other coalition partners would force Lahbib to resign, Bouchez is set to pull his party out of the seven-party coalition, which would deprive the Belgian government of a parliamentary majority.

Lahbib’s resignation would be a way of criticizing Bouchez and stressing that he made the wrong choice, said Vincent Laborderie, political science lecturer at the UCLouvain. Laborderie said Bouchez is true to himself in “being quite offensive rather than calming things down.”

While most of the governing parties want to avoid pulling the plug on the current coalition, they still feel like it’s impossible to go back to business as usual. “We need some kind of peace offering from Lahbib’s side,” said another Belgian official.

The first official said Lahbib should even go further than apologies and at least consider whether she is still able to function as foreign minister. “The question of credibility when you’re minister of foreign affairs is just the basics,” this official said.

A potential resignation or government collapse would have implications for the EU as well. Lahbib, who is both foreign minister, EU minister and trade minister, is key for the Belgian presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2024.

Preparing a new minister for chairing that wide range of Council meetings in just a few months time is a scenario Belgian diplomats are hoping to avoid — although some joke that they have seen worse. In 2010, when Belgium last held the Council Presidency, the country did not even have an official government.

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