On Day 419 of Belgium’s agonizing search for a new federal government, suddenly there is what may be the beginning of a breakthrough. The two big boys take over, Paul Magnette from the Parti Socialiste and Bart De Wever from the Flemish nationalists. They formalized this to the outside world in a sober bow before king Philipp (both!) and distinct but coordinated video-messages on Twitter.
The funeral bells for Belgium were already tolling when the last attempt to form a government, by three new presidents of three smaller parties bickering among themselves, turned into ridicule. Then last Monday the news came out that Paul Magnette had announced to his party bureau that he wanted to make a new attempt to form a government with the N-VA. The last time he tried, he was rebuffed by this party bureau, on 15 March this year. This time he seemed to get through, at least for the moment.
The three presidents, who were trying to form a new government without the normal royal mission to do so – as there is indeed officially a functioning government with a parliamentary majority – on Sunday wisely concluded that their task had to be put on a hold. Then on Monday afternoon, a few astonishing events followed.
It was learned that De Wever and Magnette were about to be received by the king at 16.30 at the Royal Palace in the heart of Brussels. This was just in time to have the cameras taking Magnette and De Wever together at their arrival, after which first the socialist party president, then the leader of the Flemish nationalists made a discreet bow when they met the king (picture VRT). Philipp asked both to pose with him before the cameras and then took them inside. After half an hour the Palace announced that the king had asked both ‘to take the necessary initiatives to form a government that can be supported by a large majority in the parliament’.
Both then, clearly in a coordinated way, send out a video-message of about one minute, Magnette at 19.00, De Wever forty minutes later. Both stressed the need to take up responsibility in a moment of deep crisis, - ‘we are the sole country without urgent health plan and without an urgent recovery program’ Magnette said - even if negotiations will not be easy. De Wever said the PS had accepted to discuss institutional reforms, and that ‘this option should be explored’. Magnette said only the socialists were able to ‘save and strengthen the social security.’
It afterwards came out that both parties have had some preliminary negotiations since about three weeks. Obviously promises were made to go for an institutional reform towards more devolution – as the N-VA wants and is obviously needed after the last election results – and for a solid program of social policies – which are now on the agenda in most European countries.
The main difficulty will inevitably be the budgetary policies and the repartition of federal money over the regions. But the spending spree everywhere in the world these days – one and a half kilometer from the Royal Palace European leaders were still discussing a recovery program with an unseen debt level for the EU – might make this task way more easier than only six months ago.
A special element in this story is the new role of the king. Although the government of Sophie Wilmès is now still in charge and the role of the king is traditionally only to help in the search for a new one after elections or the resignation of the prime minister, the Palace seems to have wanted to take the reins into its hand again. It must have foreseen that this intervention would be explained as a clear royal support for the two biggest parties of the country to seek an understanding.
There was no official timing announced, but Magnette in his message said there are exactly fifty days before prime minister Wilmes and her government – that is composed of three parties commanding only 38 of the 150 seats in the federal parliament – will face a vote of confidence early September. And that he will in these 50 days relentlessly work to have a new and solid government.