After almost 500 days of rollercoaster negotiations Belgium at last has a new fully-functioning government. But the country’s freshly-minted executive has no time to settle in: the stakes are high and the urgencies many. The ride is going to be rough.
After over a year-and-a-half of tortuous negotiations, the formation of a federal government with full powers is important in ensuring the country’s political stability and continuity. This was even recognised by parties who are not members of the governing coalition. But the white smoke announcing Alexander De Croo’s (Open Vld, Flemish liberals) appointment as Belgium’s new prime minister on 30 September had barely dispersed before grey clouds of controversy came rolling in on the political horizon. Below we present a topline selection of some of the biggest issues facing the new government.
- Quid, Covid? Unsurprisingly the pandemic is the biggest and most pressing issue at hand as cases continue to rise exponentially in Belgium as a second wave hits Europe and heavily disrupts almost all activities. The challenge will not only be to manage the pandemic from a health perspective – including the complexity of coordinating responses across given Belgium’s heavily fragmented decision-making process – but also to ensure clear, impactful communication and information to the population to prevent the situation from degrading further. Not a small task.
- It’s the economy, stupid. Covid-19 cannot be used as an excuse for all of the country’s economic woes, and the government will have to tackle many legacy issues that have been exacerbated by the Covid-induced economic crisis. These include high public debt, an ageing population, unemployment, and corporate restructuring.
- Regional autonomy and central power – mission impossible? The new government has set out to achieve further constitutional reform by 2024. This would be the seventh major reform of the state since 1970. Its ambitious and somewhat convoluted goal is to improve the distribution of powers between the state, regions and communities, increasing the autonomy of the latter while strengthening the power of the former. Mission impossible? This process is bound to require very complex negotiations, not least because of Belgium’s somewhat Byzantine division of decision-making, together with the sensitive topics that will be dealt with – including the potential return of healthcare as a central-government competence.
- Putting (and keeping) the puzzle together. The new government looks like a small parliament in itself. With as many as 20 members (one prime minister, seven deputy prime ministers, seven ministers and five secretaries of state) from seven different parties (Francophone and Batavophone socialist, liberal and green parties, together with Flemish Christian-democrats), ensuring alignment across such a wide political spectrum will require real talent and resilience.
- Wounded but still strong. Some of the leading political parties that were excluded from the governing coalition will provide vocal, if not necessarily always united, opposition. This is particularly true of the Flemish nationalist parties N-VA and Vlaams Belang, dominant parties across Flanders that together represent almost a third of the seats in parliament. They will likely use this as a stick with which to undermine the representative legitimacy of the governing coalition.
- 2024 is tomorrow. The old adage goes that politicians are always on the campaign trail. This is particularly true of the incoming coalition, as the long government formation negotiations means that it will have only three-and-a-half years of governing before the country has to go to the polls again. That will likely cause jostling for the limelight among government partners, claiming partisan victories for their own parties and blaming failures on their governing partners.