Friday, 20 March 2020

The wounds of change

 Sophie Wilmès and her outgoing government obtained the confidence vote of the federal parliament on Thursday with 88 votes against 44. It was a week full of strange images, in which Wilmès acted in the first place as head of the National Security Council with all regional governments and many experts in it, just as she did before the astonishing political events of last weekend. These do not bother the public opinion, because of the corona-crisis, but have left deep wounds that may never heal again.

 Already on Monday noon it became clear that the deal announced by the royal negotiators Patrick Dewael and Sabine Laruelle at 23 hours on Sunday was more shaky than they had presented it. Above all: nothing seems to have been put on paper. But in the meantime both royal negotiators had already reported to the king, at 10 am on Monday, and been dismissed with congratulations. Philip received one hour later Ms. Wilmès. He nominated her ‘formateur’ of the new government.

 The change had already been downgraded by Bart De Wever, the president of the Flemish nationalist NVA, on the Flemish public radio that morning. ‘I still do not see what has changed. If Wilmès needed special powers to combat the corona-virus, no sensible political party would oppose this. But I do not see any reason to vote the confidence in her minority government.’ He denied again having demanded that he himself would become prime minister of a new emergency cabinet.

 Later that day Dewael acknowledged that he had twisted the agreement of Sunday evening a little, and had added the proposal of a vote of confidence during his press conference. He did so, he said, to avoid the image of the caretaker government, with only 38 seats in support, receiving special powers in which parliamentary control would be limited.

 Wilmes in the meantime kept her caretaking government in power, and went with the whole team to the palace to take the oath on Tuesday morning at 11hours. As usual an official picture of the new government with the king was taken, but this time with a distance of at least 1 meter between each person, to comply with the government measures against corona.

 Many observers pointed to the fact that of the 13 ministers 10 are liberals, 7 from the French-speaking MR of the prime minister. With two MR-people in the other three functions that are normally also appointed during a formation of a federal government – the EC-Commissioner and the two assembly-presidents – and one for the Flemish liberals, 13 of the 16 functions go to the liberals and 9 (or 56 %) to the MR, a party that commands only 10 % of the seats in the federal parliament. The distortion is the consequence of the strange composition of the centre-right government of Charles Michel in 2014 and of the fact that N-VA left that coalition in 2018. The three remaining ministers are from the Flemish Christian Democrats, once the leading party of the country, who do not really feel at ease in this blue ocean of excellencies.

 Wilmès made her government speech on Tuesday afternoon before the plenary of the Chamber, with only the group leaders present (to avoid too many people in one room). That evening she presided the National Security Council that announced drastic new measures against corona, which are almost similar to a lockdown of the whole country. Then, on Thursday morning, the group leaders held their debate on Wilmès’s declaration, whereby N-VA announced it would not vote the confidence. In the afternoon, the vote followed, with the extreme-right Vlaams Belang voting also against, as did the extreme-left PTB.

 Meanwhile the political editors of the media tried to reconstruct the events of last weekend. In the Flemish media the initiative that started the events on Thursday 12 March was attributed to Conner Rousseau, the young president of SP.A, the Flemish socialists, who brought De Wever and Paul Magnette (president of the Parti Socialiste) together to make an emergency cabinet. In the French-speaking media it was Magnette who took that initiative. Even spinning has a communal twist in Belgium.

 The rest of the story is similar in both parts of the country: Magnette engaged himself fully, then met resistance, first with the MR (they wanted to keep Wilmès and a significant number of their outgoing ministers), then with Ecolo (they refused to work with the N-VA), finally with his own mighty party-federations of Liège and Brussels (also rejecting cooperation with N-VA). And so, at 11am on Sunday morning, when in Parliament technicians were still negotiating, he came out on tv with a verbal outburst to annihilate the idea. 'When Magnette takes a turn, it is always with smoking tires', a journalist remarked.

  These stories were the little pleasure of the in-crowd. The public at large was - to say the least - not at all interested, and concentrating on making the best of the corona-perils. But it is obvious that the new old government will start to shake as soon as corona calms down and more political choices about the economic bills will have to be made. Nor can it be for long then that the Parti Socialiste will tolerate empty-handed a plethora of ministers from a competing party still considerably smaller than itself.

 But the biggest scar may lie with Bart De Wever and the N-VA: they have incurred, even at the height of a serious crisis, the non possumus from all French-speaking parties except maybe the MR, regardless of the fact that they are still the largest party of the country, with 5 seats more than the PS. The conclusion there is obvious: that the road to Belgian power – opened five years ago by Charles Michel without obstruction from king Philip - is henceforth closed and only Flanders remain a possibility to exercise power.

 All to be seen of course when the dust of the corona-crisis settles down and when will be clear how big the damage is. The times are too shaky to make stable prognoses.

We interrupt this blog once more, as there is, after 294 days, again a functioning government in Belgium. But we have a feeling that we will be back quite soon.


Monday, 16 March 2020

And yes, a corona-coalition

After 294 days, Belgium has at last something that should look like a new federal government. At 23 hours on Sunday the royal negotiators Dewael and Laruelle announced an agreement to make Sophie Wilmès, the outgoing caretaking prime minister, ‘formateur’ of a government that will receive ‘special powers’ for three to six months to tackle the corona-crisis. That government will keep the ministers that are already in the caretaking government, but the seven other parties that have yesterday promised to support it, will in some way be involved in its decisions.

 Patrick Dewael, the president of the federal Chamber of Representatives, and Sabine Laruelle, the president of the federal Senate (picture VRT), convened a press conference in the Parliament yesterday at 23 hours to announce an agreement on a new government. This was after a tumultuous weekend and a final round of negotiations of 9 hours. Initially six parties were around the table: two socialist, two liberals, the Flemish nationalists of N-VA and the Flemish Christian Democrats. In the evening both Green parties were associated, and finally also the French-speaking Christian Democrats and Défi, the small party of Brussels nationalists.

 Together these ten political parties – only the extreme left and the extreme right and two ‘independents’ are excluded - have  a majority of 118 of the 150 seats in the federal Parliament. They are all, except for the French-speaking Christian democrats, present in one of the regional governments in the country.

 Laruelle and Dewael, who were appointed on 19 February, will today report about their negotiations to king Philip at 10:00. They will ask him to appoint Sophie Wilmès ‘formateur’ of a new government. Wilmès is the 45 years old former Budget minister and MR-politician who succeeded to Charles Michel in November last year as head of a caretaking government of MR, Flemish liberals, and Flemish Christian democrats, a minority government with only 38 seats that was in charge since December 2018.

 The agreement made yesterday evening is that Wilmès will keep the ministers of the caretaking government in place, to keep up continuity in the midst of the corona-crisis. She will then ask, probably after a debate on Thursday, to be invested as new government by the majority of 118 in the Chamber. From then on the government will have full powers again.

That government will immediate introduce a law proposal to receive ‘special powers’. That is a formula that has been used for limited periods by past governments, mainly in periods of deep economic crisis (although it was also planned but never needed in the health crisis of the Mexican flu of 2009).

 In the law proposal it is defined for what task special powers are needed. Once the law is voted, the government can decide with legislative powers for that specific task by simple decision of the whole government together (in the form of an ‘Arrêté Royal’) and without seeking immediate approval of the Parliament. It is a procedure that is mainly intended to speed up the decision process. At the end of the period, the whole package of decisions taken with this technique, has to be approved or rejected without amending by a majority in the Chamber.

 Dewael and Laruelle specified that Wilmès shall ask special powers ‘for three months, with the possibility of prolongation to six months’. Dewael suggested that the latter period will probably prevail. The special powers will be defined to tackle the corona-crisis, including its economic and budgetary consequences. How that will be defined is to be seen in the next days. There is no text yet of the agreement made public.

 The crucial element is that the seven parties, who will support the Wilmès’s government from outside (both socialists and greens, plus N-VA, French-speaking Christian democrats and Défi, who, paradoxically, together form a potential majority of their own with 80 seats) will somehow be involved in both the writing of the special powers law and its execution via government decisions. Dewael and Laruelle named specifically the ‘kern’ (a kind of inner cabinet of the prime minister and the deputy-ministers of each party) and ‘party leaders or group leaders of the Chamber’ who would be involved.

 That last element makes the already unseen formula of a de facto minority government (in its composition of three parties) supported by a huge majority in the Chamber, even more original, if not fragile. Political parties are not even mentioned in the Constitution. In a normal legislative process and with the weapon of interpellations (to be ended by a vote of confidence) at the disposal of MPs, group leaders and groups of the majority in Parliament are indirectly involved in government decisions.

 But the power of these groups to vote a law will now disappear during probably six months on all issues related to corona. How they are going to have leverage on the decisions in the government without disposing of a ministerial signature remains to be seen. On political more delicate decisions, even about corona, different de facto majorities could grow inside the huge coalition of 118 seats, left-wing as well as right-wing, an thus also strongly Flemish or strongly French-speaking.

 What will happen with new discussions that arise outside the scope of the special powers? It was specified yesterday evening that there is not a single agreement on these. In the previous long period of government negotiations – the famous 540 days of 2011-12 – it happened quite often that ad hoc majorities in the Parliament voted new laws, even on delicate issues as migration, but then the caretaking government itself still could command a majority. And finally: will the support of the outside parties be materialized in some government functions with some salaries and personnel, let alone in nominations of crucial functions outside government?

 It is all unseen and the next days will have to bring clarification. For the moment both royal negotiators have indicated that the formal period of government negotiations after 294 days has come to an end. They expressed the hope that during the six months ‘confidence will grow’ to ‘reach a point where the formation of a fully-fledged government will be possible’ somewhere in early autumn.