TV journalist Hadja Lahbib drafted in as Belgium's foreign minister

Broadcaster with Algerian roots is surprise choice to represent the Belgians abroad

Hadja Lahbib with the EU's chief diplomat Josep Borrell at her first EU summit in Brussels. AFP
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Hadja Lahbib, a television journalist with roots in Algeria and former reporter on Afghanistan and the Middle East, has been appointed Belgium's new foreign minister in a move that caught the political world by surprise.

Ms Lahbib, 52, was hired from broadcaster RTBF in what was described as a political coup for the party that put her name forward and a chance for it to show a more diverse face.

Known as a presenter of French-speaking news programmes, she said she herself was shocked by the approach, but said she would take on the job as someone "without political baggage... neither of the left, nor of the right".

"History knocks on our doors, and it's up to everyone to respond in their own way," she said.

Although Ms Lahbib has no political experience, Georges Louis Bouchez, the leader of Belgium's Reformist Movement, said she was appointed because the country "needed someone who already knows international affairs".

"Lots of our fellow citizens know her from the TV news," he said. "But she has a much wider experience because she has been in many international settings, whether in the Middle East and Afghanistan, covering foreign elections, for example in the US, and terrorist attacks around the world."

Ms Lahbib, who said she had accompanied previous foreign ministers on trips abroad, took on the job after predecessor Sophie Wilmes stood down to care for her sick husband.

Making her first appearance at an EU Council meeting on Monday, she joked she was "thrown straight into the deep end". Ms Lahbib spoke of showing continued support to Ukraine and increasing pressure on Russia to call off its invasion.

She said sanctions "must become even more effective" — as the EU debated new measures, including a ban on Russian gold — to "end the unacceptable suffering and gross violation of human rights" in Ukraine.

Belgium typically sees itself as a broker of consensus in the EU, drawing on its experience of trying to bring together a multilingual country, and one of Ms Lahbib's tasks will be to prepare for the Belgian presidency of the bloc in 2024.

She said another priority would be to push the EU to address militant attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where Belgium has a dark colonial past.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he looked forward to "defending Belgium's interests abroad together", while Belgium's embassy in Algeria highlighted Ms Lahbib's family's roots in a congratulatory message.

In an article for her former employer RTBF, fellow journalist Bertrand Henne wrote that Ms Lahbib's appointment was a "political coup" for the MR that might help change its image as a party of "rich white people in the south of Brussels".

"Offering a woman from Brussels with an Algerian background the chance to represent Belgium abroad has been celebrated in feminist, progressive circles," he wrote. However, he questioned the wisdom of appointing someone with no political experience at a time of war in Europe.

Ms Lahbib took a selfie with fellow ministers as she met her new EU colleagues for the first time. AP

Ms Lahbib was born in 1970 in Boussu, Belgium, to a family with Algerian roots, and studied journalism at university while also writing about the history of the war in Algeria.

After joining RTBF in her late 20s, she became an international correspondent who frequently travelled to Afghanistan and also covered elections in Israel, conflict in Palestine, the Bataclan attacks in Paris — and other major stories.

She has also tried her hand as a documentary maker, producing films about women in Kenya and Afghanistan, and in one case winning a parliamentary award.

More recently, she was involved in a bid for Brussels to become Europe's City of Culture in 2030, and as a minister will retain responsibility for cultural institutions as well as her foreign policy brief.

Updated: July 18, 2022, 4:45 PM