by Julien Sassel

After years of relative calm, Belgium ended 2018 with a political crisis, as it was reaching the end of the legislature. The collapse of the government over disagreements between the coalition partners over the Global Compact for Migration was unexpected in terms of time, as elections were already scheduled in May 2019, and in terms of a trigger as the non-binding UN agreement was not perceived as a major hurdle. The departure of the Flemish nationalists of the NV-A left the three other partners without a parliamentary majority, and a short-lived attempt to establish a minority coalition was met with scepticism by the opposition parties. This led Belgium to again be in the hands of a caretaker government.  

The Late Kamikaze 

The government led by Prime Minister Charles Michel was not born under the best auspices. In the aftermath of the 2014 Federal, Regional and European elections, the striking differences between the election results in Flanders and in the predominantly French-speaking regions of Wallonia and Brussels made the formation of a government extremely complex. The NV-A had secured 31 seats in the Chamber of Representatives (out of 87 allocated to the Dutch language group) while the French-speaking socialists of the PS won 23 seats out of the 63 seats composing the French language group. As the custom required securing a majority in both language groups, and NV-A and PS had reciprocated anathemas, any coalition would have excluded the main party of one of the language groups. In the end, the French-speaking liberal MR, the Flemish liberal VLD, the Flemish Christian-democrat CD&V agreed to form a cabinet with the NV-A, creating a rather unbalanced coalition, with three Flemish parties holding 63 seats out of 87 in the Dutch language group but only 20 among the 63 seats of the French language group. The coalition, led by Francophone Charles Michel, was nicknamed the Swedish coalition (based on the colours of the liberals, blue, and the yellow of NVA, with the cross representing CD&V) or dubbed the Kamikaze by the opposition. The coalition partners agreed to form such an unprecedented government only to focus on a socio-economic, freezing NV-A separatist agenda of further diluting Belgian federal state in favour of the federated entities. For this reason, many predicted a short life to the coalition as it seemed impossible that NV-A would agree to renounce to its raison d’être for five years. In the end, the Michel government’s path was quite uneasy, navigating through a harsh opposition from left parties and the management of several crisis, including the March 2016 terror attacks in Brussels. Such a situation proved helpful to NV-A as it shed light on its ministers, especially Jan Jambon, Minister of Interior, and Theo Francken, the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration. As such, NV-A platform shifted from its nationalist agenda to a strong focus on security and the control of migration. After several countries refused to sign the Global Compact for Migration, it did not come as a surprise that NV-A feared losing popularity, should it agree to sign the agreement. 

What now? 

After failing to maintain his government as a minority coalition, Charles Michel had no other choice of resigning, effectively transforming his cabinet in a caretaker government. As it currently stands, no party is planning to trigger the Parliament dissolution and, de facto, excluding the scenario of early elections. The federal elections will therefore take place on the 26th of May, concurrently with the European and the Regional elections. However, the coalition building is scheduled to be very complex, based on the latest opinion polls and the trends coming out of October 2018 local elections. 

On one hand, many leaders are considering to campaign on a double agenda, focusing on migration and security while also emphasising the need for further devolution with the aim of transform Belgium into a confederation. This would secure the two different electorates of the party, Flemish nationalists and the more traditional right-wing electorate, as the latter is likelier to shift its vote in favour of other parties. However, any mention of further devolution has been strongly rebuked by all the other parties, with some pleading for reversing the trend in some policies and proposing to reassign competences such as energy and environment to the Federal state.  

On the other hand, the latest elections and the polls suggest very different results in Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia. In Brussels, the PS has lost ground to the French-speaking green party, Ecolo, which would take the lead in the capital. At the same time, PS is maintaining itself in Wallonia. In Flanders, NV-A cannot be circumvented if one wishes to form a coalition without the Flemish extreme right Vlaams Belang.  

An addiction to chaos? 

As it appears, negotiations for the formation of a government are likely to take time and the current Michel cabinet will probably maintain its status of caretaker for a long period. While it is too early to assess whether Belgium will break its record of 541 days without a fully working government, it is predictable that this period will be determinant in defining Belgium’s future and the power share between the State and the federated entities. At the same time, any delay in the formation of the government will have an impact on Belgium’s role in the EU and its international stance especially as it will have its seat in the UN Security Council for the next two years. 

05 February 2019
This text was published in Bullseye issue 75