A very Belgian crisis

British politics may have descended into a farce, but the Belgian government has some slightly surreal problems of its own.

It all started with the Federal Election in 2014 which gave rise to a four-coalition of Flemish conservatives (CD&V), Flemish Liberals (OpenVLD), Francophone Liberals (MR) and Flemish Separatists (N-VA). Prime Minister, Charles Michel is the leader of the MR, the smallest party in the coalition and the only Francophone party willing to talk to the N-VA. He may be starting to regret this.

The Global Compact for Migration (GCM) is a non-binding UN-backed international agreement to develop develop evidence-based migration policy, encourage cooperation for tracking missing migrants and saving lives, and making provisions for both full inclusion of migrants and social cohesion, among other things.

Initially, the Belgian government was all in favour of this, until the recent local elections in which the N-VA suffered at the hands of the far right Vlaams Belang. Being a bunch of populist pant-wetters at heart, the N-VA responded to their setback by deciding that they didn’t like the GCM any more.

This led to a Parliamentary vote on the issue in which the government was supported by the opposition Green and Socialist parties and opposed by the N-VA and which led to the decision that Charles Michel would sign up to the agreement on behalf of the Belgian Parliament, but not the Belgian Government.

So the N-VA quit the coalition, claiming to have been forced out by the will of Parliament.

This leaves Michel free to travel to Morocco to sign the agreement, which he did, and Belgium with a minority administration.

On the plus side, it also means that Theo “Thickie” Francken is out with his Asylum and Immigration portfolio being taken on by the much more reasonable Maggie De Block.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. The Flemish nationalists, Flemish socialists and greens are calling for a confidence vote, although whether they would actually vote the government out is debatable.

The last time the government was brought down, it was the OpenVLD that pulled the plug and they were heavily punished in the election that followed. This time around, no-one wants to be seen as being responsible (which is why the N-VA are claiming to have been forced out rather than trying to claim any sort of principled stand) so it’s quite possible that the minority administration will stagger on to May when the next Federal election is due.

Given the depth of difference in outlook between the Liberal and separatist parties, it’s surprising that the coalition has managed to hold together for as long as it has — although there have been a few close calls over the years. Much of this is probably due to the fact that foreign policy — the main area of divergence among the parties — is not something that the typical Belgian spends much time worrying about.

The N-VA have been trying to make an issue of immigration for some time. If they are successful then, in May, Belgians are going to have to decide whether they want their country to continue to be an outward-looking member of the European and global community, or whether they would prefer to start cowering behind populist rhetoric.

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