Ministerial resignations in Belgium make early election a prospect

Members of nationalist Flemish N-VA step down over UN declaration on migration

Belgian prime minister Charles Michel: met King Philippe on Sunday morning to seek a royal decree to allow him to reorganise his government. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq

Belgian prime minister Charles Michel: met King Philippe on Sunday morning to seek a royal decree to allow him to reorganise his government. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq

 

Belgium is again to be ruled by a minority government and may be forced into an early election following the resignation from cabinet on Saturday of ministers from parliament’s largest party, the nationalist Flemish N-VA.

The resignations followed a public spat between Francophone liberal prime minister Charles Michel and the N-VA over his determination to endorse a UN declaration sympathetic to migration which is due to be signed by 180 states on Monday in Marrakesh.

Michel met King Philippe on Sunday morning to seek a royal decree to allow him to reorganise his government. Last week Michel had secured a large parliamentary majority in favour of maintaining Belgium’s support for the “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration”, a first attempt by the UN to agree a comprehensive and co-operative approach to migration by the international community. Although not legally binding, it has already been repudiated by six EU states, led by the Austrian presidency and Hungary. The US, Israel and Australia have also announced they will not be signing up.

‘Sustainable development’

Core to the UN’s vision is the view that migration was integral to human experience throughout history, a source of “prosperity, innovation and sustainable development in our globalised world”.

The agreement was provisionally approved in July by all UN members except President Donald Trump’s US. Ireland, which supports the compact, will be represented by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan.

The N-VA, a nationalist party which supports the break-up of Belgium, is under strong electoral pressure from the far-right Vlaams Belang. It argued that the compact would undermine the government’s tough stance against illegal migrants. The party, led by the Mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, had held the powerful interior, immigration and finance ministries. Michel, who will attend Marrakesh and sign, following a strong vote of parliamentary support for the endorsement of the compact, has appointed three ministers from his other Flemish allies, the centre-right CD&V and the liberal Open VLD, to take the resignees place. Health minister Maggie De Block, a liberal, will take over the migration portfolio, and Alexander De Croo and Pieter De Crem, from the CD&V party, will take over as finance and interior ministers respectively.

Complex power-sharing

A statement from the prime minister said the appointments would “guarantee the continuity and good functioning of our institutions” as well as “stability”.

His hands are somewhat tied under the complex power-sharing system akin to Northern Ireland’s executive in which each community is required to be equally represented.

The government’s minority status may force it into an early election – regional, federal and European elections are scheduled here for May – after the partial collapse of the experimental coalition which came to power in 2014. It is dominated by Flemish parties and involved for the first time an explicitly separatist party.

Political observers, echoing some in Northern Ireland, say that the cross-community power-sharing built in to the Belgian system, with its parallel linguistic parties, contributes during elections to an unhealthy competition which drives parties on each side like the N-VA to embrace ever-more extreme positions.