European elections: Belgium’s priorities and the great packaging debate

By Sophie JACOBS – Agrifood Director | Brussels, European Union

On the 1st of January, Belgium assumed the six-month European Union Council Presidency: a pivotal moment for shaping the future of EU policies. However, this leadership role comes with unique challenges, as Belgium only has a few weeks at the beginning of its presidency to finalise crucial negotiations with the European Parliament on key legislative files if it wants them to be adopted during this Parliament’s mandate.

A key focus for Belgium during its presidency is the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR): new rules aimed at cutting down on packaging waste and underpinning Europe’s transition to a circular economy. The goal of this legislation is to ensure that ‘’all packaging in the EU is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030”. It outlines the fundamental criteria for packaging design and composition, establishing targets for the reusability, collection and recycling of packaging materials.

While there is agreement on the legislation’s goals, debates are ongoing about the best methods for achieving them. The Council’s adoption of its position on the text in mid-December – despite outstanding disagreements amongst Member States – confirms the determination of all parties involved to get the PPWR finalised before the June elections. The Belgian Presidency now faces the complex task of reconciling ’divergent positions within the Council and bridging the gap with the European Parliament’s more industry-friendly approach. The outcome of these negotiations holds considerable importance for industry given the ubiquity of packaging, and will impact the entire supply chain.

Balancing ambition with supply chain realities

As highlighted above, despite the Spanish Presidency’s success in securing adoption of the Council General Approach at the end of last year, several Member States expressed reservations about the current text. Discontent arose particularly around balancing reuse and recycling, with some countries expressing disappointment with a lack of ambition, while others criticised the overemphasis on reuse. Balancing these divergent perspectives will be challenging, but Belgium’s reputation for moderation and creativity to build compromises is an important asset.

In addition, the Commission’s role in the upcoming discussions (so-called “trilogues”) should not be underestimated. Commissioner Sinkevičius reiterated the need for an ambitious text that goes beyond recycling and defended the Commission’s proposed targets for reusable packaging, rejecting criticism of the Commission’s impact assessment. Last minute changes to the Council position included a provision which would require a review of the 2040 reuse targets based on a life cycle assessment of single-use and reuse packaging. Will this be enough to please the Parliament, or will it hold firm on immediate exemptions from reuse targets if reuse is not the option delivering the best environmental outcome?

The debate extends beyond reuse, with bans on certain packaging formats sparking controversy in both the Parliament and Council; the Council’s decision to limit the ban on single use packaging for fresh fruits and vegetables to only plastic packaging raises questions about the rationale behind this restriction and why it was not then extended to the other banned packaging formats.

The clock is ticking

All three EU institutions have been working under immense pressure, with the PPWR being one of the most heavily lobbied files of this mandate. As the negotiations enter into the final stages, the pressure will be ramped up even further as all parties seek to reach an agreement ahead of the European elections – or run the risk of having the file re-opened under the next mandate. The current Parliament in particular will be keen to finalise the text, with MEPs involved in the file looking to be able to point to huge success as part of their campaigns.

Belgium’s diplomatic skills will be put to the test as it seeks to reconcile diverse interests an in extremely tight timeframe. Discussions will start this week and should be finalised before 9 March. The hope is that decisions made within this pressure cooker over the next few months will nevertheless take into account the far-reaching consequences on businesses in Europe, and that the final text will effectively mitigate the environmental impact of packaging and packaging waste without putting the entire supply chain at risk.