Alexander De Croo, 44 years old, and since 2012 deputy prime minister in the federal government for the Flemish liberals, is the new prime minister of Belgium. He presented the program of a seven-party coalition of two socialist, two liberal, two green and the Flemish Christian-democratic parties this afternoon in the plenary of the European Parliament (as the Belgian federal Chamber has moved 1,5 km to the east, in order to have 150 Belgian MP’s present, while keeping social distance of 1,5 meter). The vote of confidence will take place on Saturday afternoon. Earlier on Thursday, at 10:30, the new government was sworn in at the Royal Palace in the presence of king Philip (picture, De Croo is the second from the left, first row, standing between his predecessor Sophie Wilmès and the king)
De Croo is a surprising choice as he is a member of a party that was only fifth in the hierarchy of parties with the most votes at the elections of 26 May 2019, and as his party is even only the second largest Flemish party (in votes) in the new government. The main reason for that is the fact that the two largest parties, the Flemish nationalists and the extreme right Vlaams Belang, are in opposition and have together with the 4 MPs from the extreme left a slight majority of all Flemish seats in the parliament. Paul Magnette, the president of the largest group in the new government, the French-speaking socialists, believed it was wiser to leave the lead of the government to a Flemish politician.
The two previous prime minister were both French-speaking, after all prime ministers between 1973 and 2011 were Flemish. In that latter period the prime minister was always the leader of the largest group in Parliament. But that implicit rule - there are almost no explicit rules on the prime ministership in the Constitution - has been undermined by the complicated relations between the two nationalities in Belgium since the Flemish nationalist NVA became the largest group in 2010 (it still is). It is one of the growing elements of instability in the formation of governments, explaining why it took so long - 494 days - to have a new government after the last elections. Since the fall of the last government with a full majority at the end of 2018, 654 days have passed.
The Flemish liberals, the party of De Croo that commands only 12 of the 150 seats in the Chamber, had a pivotal position after the last elections and has played its cards best, including the cynicism to lengthen the crisis with many months during a pandemic in order to see the prime ministership arriving in the hands of De Croo instead of the then party president Gwendolyn Rutten, who was on the same track already in November 2019.
The socialists seem to have scored best in a government program with much money flowing towards social expenditures, although the two Flemish parties that were already in the previous centre-right coalition of Charles Michel have obtained that the measures of that government should not be reversed. The year-on budget deficit will rise to 10 % this year, to be reduced to 8 % next, at least on paper. The effect of the European Recovery Fund is not yet in that amount. The global public debt is likely to rise to 125 % gdp in the next years.
In his first statement yesterday the prime-minister designated stressed the need for mutual respect and denounced the brutality of present-day political debates. It seems indeed that the potentially quite unstable coalition of seven parties has only a chance to survive if it can demonstrate unity in governing the country again, after the political class failed to do so, even during the worst health crisis in a century. The composition of the new government, that was gradually announced by the party presidents during last night, is one with eight female ministers and seven male (including the prime minister), so for the first time gender-balanced.
Both Flemish opposition parties seem in the meantime indeed to have opted for quite a macho and almost ‘Trumpian’ approach of opposition, showering harsh words and brutal images over the new coalition (‘The Flemish liberals have gone on their knees, opened their mouth and you do not want to know what they swallowed’, dixit Bart de Wever, the president of the NVA and mayor of Antwerp). They hope to obtain an elected majority for an independent Flanders in 2024, for which they failed just 5 seats in the Flemish Parliament (on a majority of 64 seats) in 2019.
And with that line we bring to an end this episode of crisisinBelgium, the fourth one since 2007, and the longest one after that of 2010. It is rather unlikely that this will be the last one ..