For Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo, now is the time to work together, have honest conversations and provide solutions. From the power of optimism to the need to break stereotypes, he believes that liberals can be the force for positive change across Europe. In this exclusive interview, Prime Minister De Croo shares his perspective ahead of a pivotal year for Belgian and European politics
This interview was originally published in ALDE Party's Liberal Bulletin in December 2023.
2024 is a big year for Belgium and for Europe, as the current political mandates are coming to their end. In your view, what will be the biggest challenges and opportunities for Belgian and European liberals in the coming year?
In Belgium, but also in other European countries, many young people will vote for the first time next year. They may have to do so while a war rages on our continent, just a few thousand kilometres away. They will do so after Europe’s hottest summer on record. Many people, not just the young, are wondering if tomorrow will be better than today.
We seem to live in an uncertain world, where only negative news sells. Liberal politicians who ask for the voters to have confidence in them must also give that confidence. If we want to convince young people to vote for liberals, it can only be with results – not with false, flat, populist answers, neither with naivety nor with a discourse that is dividing our societies.
What young Europeans expect from us is modern governance that makes their lives better, that helps them on their way to a job or to a house. What they expect from us is to be pragmatic and ambitious at the same time. But not everyone is feeling negative, or predicting the end of the world.
There is a large silent majority that collaborates with each other and does their part for society. This is why politicians too must work together, bridge divides and engage in honest, open conversations with the citizens.
Over the past few years, Europe has faced one crisis after another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Europeans are feeling less hopeful about the future and have an increasing distrust in politics. Extremists have been very skilled at conveying a message of fear to voters. How can we do the same, but with a message of hope?
It is perfectly human that wars, pandemics and extreme weather conditions generate insecurity. So does inflation.
Tapping into peoples’ fears and insecurities in such times is easy – giving solutions isn’t. Where populists are in government, they also struggle to offer solutions. Think of Italy for example: Has Giorgia Meloni stopped the boats from coming? Of course not. Did Boris Johnson make the NHS “great again” after leaving the EU? Of course not.
As long as I live, I will remain an optimist. I believe that a message of hope can resonate with citizens, because every human being – wherever they come from, whatever they believe in and whatever language they speak – has the inherent desire to make their lives better.
The fake solutions of the extremists won’t do that. They offer quick fixes with negative long-term consequences and less freedom. Or, they offer solutions which might be good for some people, but are detrimental to others and therefore further increase inequality.
What we must never do is surrender our democracies to disinformation and fake news. Anti-democratic forces distort reality and spread lies, sometimes at the expense of our children’s safety. In Belgium for example, schools have been under attack following fake news about sex education classes and rumours about schools teaching children how to masturbate. That goes way too far.
It’s fundamental that citizens can vote in safe and democratic elections, that our freedoms and values remain ours and that we continue to provide equal opportunities for all.
Belgium has also been through a series of national crises, fromdeadly floods to increasedviolence in the streets of Brussels.What are some of the liberalpolicy solutions to tackle thesechallenges, now and in the future?
The worst thing to do would be to close our eyes and ignore reality. Too many politicians still do this. To tackle the problem, you need to first call it out. This is where liberals can make a difference.
I often hear voices saying it is too late, that we need to give up, blame the “boomers” or stop trying. I always say: “Let’s not panic, let’s organise. Let’s not worry and contemplate, let’s act.”
The green transition offers a huge opportunity for companies to make money. If we look at what Belgian companies are doing when it comes to things like offshore energy or hydrogen, we can be proud. International partnerships are being set up to create solutions and create jobs, at the same time. It’s a win-win. That’s what liberal solutions look like.
You have been a champion of women’s rights and women’s participation in politics for a long time and have famously said that you don’t need to be a woman to be a feminist. How can we involve more men as allies to support women to take their seats around political tables?
Every change starts with setting an example. I am very proud that my government is gender-balanced, and I have a transgender minister in my core team – the first in the world.
The fact that our media hasn’t written a thousand articles on the subject shows that this is the new normal. And it really is. Female ministers on television responsible for the budget, for defence, for foreign affairs – children will grow up thinking that this is not an exception, but the norm.
Liberals like to talk about freedom. To me, the most liberating thing we can do is to break stereotypes, to break away from all mental limitations. That’s why in my book, I write that gender equality will also liberate men, as they too will have the opportunity to break away from the stereotypes imposed on them.