Home Society Vandenbroucke is a top pick for EU health commissioner. But the chances are slim.
Vandenbroucke is a top pick for EU health commissioner. But the chances are slim.

Vandenbroucke is a top pick for EU health commissioner. But the chances are slim.

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Vandenbroucke is a top pick for EU health commissioner. But the chances are slim.

BRUSSELS — In a noncompetitive field for the next health commissioner of the European Union, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister Frank Vandenbroucke should be something of a shoo-in.

He has Covid-era experience as health minister in the federal government and influence over European health policy, leading the EU charge against drug shortages.

Chairing EU countries, he was instrumental in shunting new health data legislation over the line before the European Parliament ceased work for the election.

And he’s also not afraid of powerful lobbies, including Big Tobacco.

But despite these qualifications, two things are blocking his path from the Belgian government to the European Commission’s Berlaymont building: Belgium’s own complicated political situation, and whether he wants the job at all.

Nonetheless, these obstacles haven’t stopped his fans from dreaming.

He’d make an “excellent” commissioner, said Caroline Costongs, who heads up the public health nonprofit EuroHealthNet.

“We have clearly seen his expertise and strong support for a wide range of health and social topics, ranging from mental health at work to a broad approach to the European Health Union,” she said.

He also has a “clear vision on what needs to be done to create resilient health systems, strengthen public health and reduce health inequalities,” she added.

Vandenbroucke’s profile rose nationally during the Covid crisis as health minister and deputy prime minister. The Dutch-speaking socialist party he heads up — called Forward — has also just fared well in the Belgian election.

Despite all that, it’s not been plain sailing for Vandenbroucke. He’s been embroiled in a pandemic contract scandal involving a member of his office, ex-Mossad spies and undercover recordings. But this has done little to dampen the enthusiasm for him of health policy wonks in the bubble.

Milka Sokolović, the director general of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), said in an email that Vandenbroucke and his team’s leadership have been “recognised globally — not least representing the EU and its positions at the [World Health Assembly] earlier this month.”

Several people in health circles have also commented on Belgium’s strong health agenda in this Council presidency — driven by Vandenbroucke.

Strong credentials

The last six months has been something of a test drive for Vandenbroucke in the central role, with Belgium holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.

As well as being a near-constant presence on the Brussels health conference scene, he helped alongside the European Commission to launch the Critical Medicines Alliance — a high-profile EU initiative to explore how to overcome drug shortages.

This is seen as the first step to the more weighty Critical Medicines Act, a proposal to replicate European efforts toward self-reliance in microchips. This was first proposed by Belgium and Vandenbroucke in 2023, and supported by 18 countries.

He also shepherded talks over the line on the European Health Data Space, and scolded the Commission for dragging its feet on tougher tobacco legislation.

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” he said in a January meeting of health lawmakers in the European Parliament, when he made public the news that the Commission would delay its announcement on smoke-free environments.

“These actions have been undermined by powerful industry interests at the cost of Europeans’ health,” he told members of European Parliament.

Perhaps the biggest endorsement a health minister can get is a thumbs-down from the smoking lobby. And they really don’t like Vandenbroucke.

A smoking lobbyist told POLITICO that he’d be the “worst pick” for the job because they perceive his tighter rules on cigarette sales as a nanny state approach to the industry.

He’s also developed his own way of getting things done.

Ex-Green MEP Patrick Breyer, who negotiated against him during crunch talks on the health data regulation, said that Vandenbroucke pushed the Parliament until it “caved in.”

“To begin with, he was rather diplomatic and friendly — but when Parliament insisted on its position and red lines, he basically switched to threatening us, saying that the file would be dead if you insist on this,” he said.

Breyer conceded that Vandenbroucke did get what he wanted, with an agreement reached before the last Parliament plenary before elections.

Vandenbroucke did not respond to a request for comment on Breyer’s points.

Some observers say a more combative approach is what Europe needs for health, as it’s about to nosedive down the political agenda — an ax is hovering over the multi-billion-euro budget of the EU’s largest health program, EU4Health.

Handing mid-sized Belgium the EU’s health portfolio would also suggest that current and anticipated future Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, herself a doctor, does not intend to forget about health.

Typically, the portfolio lands with the smallest and least-influential of countries.

The national picture

The prestige of an EU commission position might not be a big enough draw for Vandenbroucke; his team has repeatedly told POLITICO that his aim is to stay on as the Belgian health minister.

The country’s federal election, held on the same day as the European election, saw Vandenbroucke’s center-left Forward party perform better than expected, gaining an extra four seats. But it still only scored 8 percent of the vote, making it the smallest of the five parties projected to get involved in Belgian coalition talks.

Pundits believe his party will want him to hang around national politics, too.

“They really need him for the negotiations because he’s one of the ones who really knows the issues and competences,” Dave Sinardet, a professor of political science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, told POLITICO. 

Belgians would also like Vandenbroucke to stay in the federal government because Forward is the only left-wing party of the five that could form a center-right government, he said. “So for his party, it would be very bad news if he went to the Commission.”

That’s in part because the Belgian nomination process for top jobs relies on a points-based system, and a European role costs a party more points than a national ministerial post.

“If you have a European commissioner, you’ll probably have a minister less,” Sinardet said. “And if you’re marginalized because of your ideological position, it’s not necessarily a good idea to have a minister less.”

As Costings with EuroHealthNet put it: “The question is not whether he’d make a good commissioner, but whether he can be missed in Belgium.”

Other names in the mix for who could be European commissioner from Belgium include caretaker Prime Minister Alexander De Croo; Elio Di Rupo, former prime minister and now premier of Wallonia; Paul Magnette, leader of the French-speaking Socialists and mayor of Charleroi; and Sophie Wilmès, another former prime minister and ex-foreign affairs minister.

And then there were none

The question is: If not Vandenbroucke, then who?

One prominent name in the rumor mill was Chris Fearne, the Maltese health minister whose background as a physician and experience in policy made him a popular choice among health bubble and EU ministers alike.

But last month, he stood down as Malta’s nomination after it emerged he would face criminal charges in connection with a deal for three hospitals.

That leaves current Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides as the other strongest pick.

EPHA chief Sokolović praised Kyriakides, saying she has shown she understands the need for a strong EU health budget.

Kyriakides’ team did not explicitly rule out a return for the Cypriot — but told POLITICO she is “continuing to focus her full attention on her current work and the many important tasks and challenges to be addressed still during the mandate.”

Otherwise, the portfolio would be likely to fall to a newcomer, someone with little or no experience in health — a scenario the health community is hoping to avoid.

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