It has been a very chaotic month for the government of Belgium. A major political crisis led to the downfall of the government now leaving the country in survival mode. Belgium is now without an official government… again.
You may recall that from 2010 to 2011, the country was left with no government for 541 days due to disagreements over the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde issue. The same thing happened in 2007 when it took 196 days for politicians to form a coalition government.
This, however, is the first time that the Belgian government fell apart over the sensitive issue of migration. Here’s a breakdown of what happened in seven questions and answers.
1. What caused the crisis?
Three words. Global Migration Pact.
The United Nations’ Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration contains 23 guidelines to facilitate international migration. They include recommendations to provide migrants with proof of legal identity; to reduce vulnerabilities in migration such as the conditions they face in countries of origin, transit, and destination; and to combat smuggling and human trafficking.
In general, the UN deal calls on countries to promote universal human rights for migrants and to ensure their protection from racism, hate crimes, and other forms of discrimination.
As a non-legally binding document, the global migration pact does not obligate its signatories to transpose it into national law. However, it is binding in a political and moral sense since it is a venue for governments to declare where they stand on a particular issue. Non-binding agreements serve as a framework or direction for creating future policies.
On December 10, the Global Compact for Migration was adopted by leaders of 164 countries, including Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, during an international conference in Marrakesh, Morocco. It was ratified by 152 countries during the UN General Assembly on December 19.
However, the agreement sowed discord among members of the United Nations and the European Union. During the ratification of the deal last Wednesday, five nations voted against it: the United States which originally supported the pact, Israel, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. EU countries Austria, Bulgaria, Italy, Latvia, and Romania abstained while Slovakia did not vote. Abstention implies ambivalence or indecision towards an issue while not voting expresses disapproval without having to cast a negative vote.
2. How did the crisis erupt?
Revolts over the UN migration pact started brewing in the federal government in October. Ministers belonging to Flemish right-wing political party Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie or New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) firmly objected to Michel’s plan to support the agreement.
Days before the signing of the migration pact in Marrakesh, the federal government was still divided over the issue. As a last-ditch attempt, Michel asked the federal parliament to vote on the matter.
On December 5, the parliament voted 106 to 36 in favor of backing the agreement. Michel then announced that he will attend the Marrakesh conference on December 10 and endorse the migration pact.
3. Why was the N-VA so against the UN migration deal even if it’s not legally binding?
N-VA has always been known for its anti-migration stance. Members of the Flemish nationalist party, most notably former State Secretary for Asylum and Migration Theo Francken, claimed that the UN agreement was a crackdown on national sovereignty and a country’s right to self-determination.
The migration pact clearly states that it respects the principle of national sovereignty. But the political agreement can still have legal consequences. Any individual or organization may make claims in court citing the government’s documented support for the pact. And even if it’s not a law, judges may not always be willing to rule against the United Nations.
It was reported that members of the Belgian government were initially united in supporting the deal. Michel even upheld this favorable position while attending the UN General Assembly on September 27. But soon after, the N-VA changed its tune allegedly out of fear of losing its supporters’ votes in the elections next year.
4. When did the Belgian government fall apart?
On December 9, the day of the prime minister’s departure for Morocco, the Belgian government fell apart after the N-VA ministers pulled out of Michel’s administration. This left the federal government with no cabinet leaders to manage the Interior, Defense, Finance, Migration, and Equal Rights ministries.
Belgian King Philippe immediately accepted the resignation of the five N-VA ministers while Michel reshuffled his cabinet.
5. What were the consequences of N-VA’s departure from government?
The federal government lost its governing power as the majority. The Michel administration was originally run by a coalition of four political parties: N-VA was the biggest party, followed by the Reformist Movement (MR), the Christian Democratic and Flemish party (CD&V), and the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD).
With N-VA gone, the coalition no longer had the majority in the decision-making process. In a parliamentary system such as the one in Belgium, the federal government is directly tied to the federal parliament. The composition of the cabinet reflects the majority in the Chamber of Representatives. If one political party pulls out of the government, the majority in the parliament is also dissolved.
Before the walk-out of N-VA, the four ruling parties owned a total of 83 out of 150 seats in the parliament. When N-VA left, they lost 31 seats. With only 52 seats left, the coalition found itself outnumbered by members of opposition parties.
Furthermore, with N-VA out of the majority, the interests of the people who voted for them will not be fairly represented in the decision-making process. And since N-VA won the highest number of votes in the last elections of 2014, it implies that a very large percentage of the Belgian population will lose a voice in government. Or at least, they will lose the advantage they used to own as part of the majority.
6. Why was the prime minister forced to resign?
After the departure of N-VA, Michel tried to carry on with the three remaining parties as a minority government. He sought a coalition of goodwill to keep the government afloat just until the next federal elections on May 26 next year. But he failed to secure the support of the parliament.
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Le premier ministre belge jette l'éponge – Le premier ministre belge, Charles Michel, a annoncé la démission de son gouvernement de centre droit. Une décision qui intervient neuf jours après le départ des ministres nationalistes flamands qui s'opposaient à ce que la Belgique soutienne le pacte mondial de l'ONU sur les migrations. – À lire sur Mediapart.⠀ ⠀ Photo : Charles Michel avant sa conférence de presse samedi 8 décembre dans la soirée à Bruxelles. Crédit Reuters / Eric Vidal #Belgique #NVA #flamands #CharlesMichel #Michel #Bruxelles #Europe #BartDeWever #Mediapart
On December 18, Michel was forced to step down and tender his resignation to King Philippe after the socialists and the greens proposed a vote of no confidence in his administration. King Philippe finally accepted Michel’s resignation on December 21.
7. What happens to Belgium now?
Belgium is now under a caretaker government. No snap elections are foreseen. Upon the request of the king, Michel’s administration will continue running the country in a caretaker capacity until the May 26 elections.
Under these circumstances, the remaining government can only execute decisions that have already been approved. It cannot engage in new policies.
The question now is what becomes of the proposal for the 2019 federal budget which should have been approved last Thursday? It will have to be put on hold.
In the meantime, the caretaker government will have to seek a new agreement with parliament to cover the most urgent federal expenses until April when the government is dissolved 40 days before the elections.
Meanwhile, the Belgian government will take a much-needed pause for the holidays. We await further developments once the festivities are over.