How did the almost two-year political crisis in Belgium end?

By | October 3, 2020
How did the almost two-year political crisis in Belgium end?

Belgium celebrates the end of almost two years of political crisis – after 653 days of the Provisional Cabinet, a full-fledged government has reappeared in the kingdom. The new ruling coalition in parliament was formed of seven Flemish and Walloon parties, named Vivaldi. However, experts are not sure that this alliance will be durable since the most popular parties in the kingdom – the New Flemish Alliance and the Flemish Interest – have not joined the government. In Belgium, the new government took office after the longest political crisis in the kingdom’s history. For 653 days, a provisional government operated in the country, and parties in parliament were unable to agree on a coalition.

The crisis ended on October 1, when the new Cabinet and Prime Minister were sworn in. Alexander de Croo from the party “Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats” headed the government and before that he had been the minister of finance. His candidacy was approved by all representatives of the new ruling coalition in parliament, which included seven political parties.

At the same time, the two right-wing Flemish parties – the New Flemish Alliance (NFA) and Flemish Interest – were not included in the coalition, although they were the winners of last year’s parliamentary elections. Their admission to the formation of the Cabinet is a rather significant but predictable event: the parties failed to find allies within a year.

Coalition problems
The fact is that the political system of the federal kingdom has one unpleasant point – the ruling coalition must necessarily include the parties of the southern French-speaking region of Wallonia and northern Dutch-speaking Flanders. There are no national parties in Belgium, and a major victory in one part of the kingdom does not eliminate the need to find partners in the other.

As a result, the NFA and the Flemish interest could not find the necessary support.

Negotiations on the creation of a coalition were constantly at an impasse because the other parties refused to interact with Flemish radicals – this is true for parties of the traditional political spectrum on the whole territory of the kingdom.

The way out of the crisis was the formation of the ruling coalition of seven parties, which had already been named Vivaldi for its party colors – embodying four seasons and echoing the composer’s famous work The Seasons.

Thus, red is the socialist parties of Wallonia and Flanders, orange is the Christian Democrats and Flemish, blue is the liberal “Reform Movement” from Wallonia and the “Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats,” green is the Walloon “Ecolo” and the Flemish “Green!

Seven parties were able to sit at the negotiating table back in August, and by the end of September, they had reached an agreement. However, this does not remove the problem of the popularity of the APF and “Flemish Interest”.

At present, the balance of power in parliament is as follows: “New Flemish Alliance” – 25 seats, socialists – 20, right of “Flemish Interest” – 18, Reformist movement – 14, green of “Echo” – 13. By 12 mandates the parties “Christian Democrats and Flemish”, “Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats” and the left from the Party of Labor of Belgium.

Besides that, Flemish socialists hold 9 seats, “Green! – 8 mandates, “Human Democratic Center” – 5 seats, and social liberals from “Challenge” have 2 mandates.

As Petr Oskolkov, senior researcher of the Department of European Integration Studies at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences said in a conversation with “Gazeta.ru”,
The creation of the Vivaldi coalition is not the most logical option among all possible.

“It does not grant a seat in the government to the New Flemish Alliance, the largest parliamentary party in Belgium and simultaneously the largest party in Flanders. Thus, the coalition does not get a majority in the Flemish part of the federal parliament. Proceeding from this, it is possible to assume that a considerable part of the government decisions will not be supported by the APF, as well as by the party “Flemish Interest”. This raises a question about the longevity of the coalition and the formed government,” the expert noted.

Most likely, it would be more preferable to create a coalition called “Arizona”, Oskolkov continued, and instead of “green” parties it would include the APF, but in the end this scenario was not implemented. The main reason was the Walloon socialists’ resistance: the coalition architects demanded the inclusion of both socialist parties in the kingdom.

An urgent need
The new government in Belgium was formed very timely, given that recently the country has been experiencing difficulties due to the limited powers of the interim Cabinet. This was especially evident against the background of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, as the country existed without a full budget project.

In the spring of this year, during the most acute outbreak of the epidemic, the Cabinet had to be given extraordinary powers to begin a serious fight against the spread of the virus in the kingdom. However, this did not close the issue with the budget, and one important detail was left without the possibility of coordination – participation of Belgium in economic recovery with the support of the European Union.

Probably, this fact was one of the main reasons for strengthening negotiations to overcome the political crisis in mid-summer, when the EU had already previously agreed on the creation of a €750 billion fund to restore the economy of the countries of the association that suffered during the pandemic. As the interim government does not have the authority to approve the program.

An interesting point is that the new Cabinet of Ministers was sworn in on October 1, at the same time as the beginning of the unscheduled EU summit, where the leaders of the association countries just discussed issues related to economic support within the European Union.

As TASS notes, ex-prime minister of Belgium and now head of European council Charles Michel played a significant role in such a sharp end of the crisis. According to the sources of the agency, the politician exerted informal pressure on political circles of Belgium to settle political problems for the EU summit – especially for the country’s participation in the program to save the economy.

The issue with the formation of a full-fledged government obviously required completion, because it could not exist all the time, believes Peter Oskolkov. The last Cabinet of Ministers headed by Sophie Wilmes from the “Reform Movement”, which replaced Michel, was to some extent the so-called current government.

“Wilmes officially took the oath of office as prime minister, but the cabinet was given new powers only during the coronation crisis. In any case, the government was perceived as temporary, there were big problems with decision-making,” the expert stressed.

Forced Prime Minister
With all the variables in mind, the main question for Belgium is how long the new government will last. In addition to the contradictions with the NFA and the Flemish interest, it has to solve a number of important problems, primarily social ones, which are still of paramount importance for Belgian society.

Prime Minister de Croo has a significant role to play in this and will lead a seven-party cabinet.

The 44-year-old politician is the first Flemish Premier since 2011. He speaks fluent French, which is important enough for the Belgian prime minister.
By the way, de Croo contributed in part to the launch of the past political collapse in the kingdom. Ten years ago, the party “Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats” under his leadership left the government, which led to its collapse. Subsequently, a provisional government was in place for 589 days.

It is too early to tell whether De Croo will lead the country to a new political crisis. As Politico writes, his appointment seems rather forced. According to columnist Barbara Moines, the party of prime minister is only the fourth most popular in the coalition, and the more advantageous candidate looked Walloon socialist Paul Magnett – as a representative of the largest party in the “Vivaldi”. De Croo’s candidacy, however, suited all parties when the Walloon liberals opposed Magnett.

However, the popularity of the party is only a small part of the problems of the new premier. In fact, a number of ideological contradictions have already emerged in the ruling coalition, which de Croo will have to resolve to maintain the integrity of the system. In particular, each of the seven ruling parties has made its own list of budget wishes: the Greens want more money to fight the climate and abandon nuclear power, the Socialists demand higher minimum pensions, and the Liberals want to avoid new taxes.

From the point of view of Petr Oskolkov, de Croo is a rather experienced politician, and his party “Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats” has a certain popularity in Belgium – it has been part of the ruling coalition of the kingdom at least several times. “I would not say that de Croo’s figure was chosen unsuccessfully,” the expert summed up.