Oops

Having collapsed the Belgian government by walking out of the coalition over a non-issue, the super-geniuses of the N-VA have just realised that this means some of the legislation they wanted implemented is also cancelled.

So now they are planning to propose much of the legislation that was in the coalition agreement but is probably now no longer going to happen.

The N-VA has 31 out of 150 seats in the Belgian parliament and, with the end of the coalition, there is no reason for their former partners to help them out here.

So they are going to have to convince the Socialists, the Greens and others to vote for a reduction in unemployment benefit.

Yeah, good luck with that.

PM resigns

The Belgian Government continues to wobble. Having refused to propose a confidence motion for his minority government, Prime Minister Charles Michel is now struggling to pass a budget. The N-VA were in favour of the budget when they were in government, but now that they have quit, they’ve decided that they don’t like it any more.

As the Prime Minister had anticipated that the budget probably won’t be approved by a majority of MPs, he proposes working with so-called “provisional twelfths”, a system that would see the federal government having one twelfth of this year’s budget being put at its disposal every month between now and the elections next May. However, this would mean that between now and then the government would have to seek parliament’s approval every month for the “provisional twelfths”. The Prime Minister called on MP to “act responsibly”.

The alternative is an early election, which no-one wants, not only because it would mean the political parties would be trying to form a coalition while campaigning against each other in the EU elections, but also because whichever party brings down the government is likely to be punished at the polls for dragging voters out yet again.

But with the Socialist and Green parties threatening a vote of no confidence, Michel has called their bluff by resigning.

The king is not obliged to accept the resignation and is now talking with other political leaders before deciding what to do next.

King Filip could ask Michel to remain as leader of a caretaker administration, which would be able to execute decisions already made by Parliament, but would not be able launch any new initiatives. If Michel refuses, the king could either nominate someone else or instruct the government to call an early election.

If a caretaker administration is proposed, Parliament could still table a vote of no confidence, dissolve itself and trigger new elections. But they probably won’t.

Either way, nothing much is likely to happen before the new year but it looks like Charles Michel’s unlikely administration has finally run out of road.

Finger Lickin’ Good?

Back when I was young, I used to really enjoy Kentucky Fried Chicken. I have not, however, been able to indulge myself since moving to Belgium, not least because there are no KFC outlets in the country.

This is about to change when the fast food chain opens its first outlet somewhere in Brussels sometime next May.

Although KFC is refusing to disclose the exact location of its first Belgian outlet. The Brussels regional news platform Bruzz says that it has it on good authority that the restaurant will be located at Brussels North Railway Station.

I walk to Brussels North station every weekday. Maybe I should just give up on trying to keep my weight under control.

Belgian Standoff

I mentioned the state of the Belgian government last week — specifically, the fact that the largest party in the government coalition has walked out leaving us with a minority government. The Greens and Socialists have called for a confidence vote, arguing that without the N-VA, this is a new administration. The government has resisted this, arguing that the new administration is exactly the same as the old one, just a bit smaller.

With the next federal elections due in May (at the same time as the European Parliament elections), no-one wants to be responsible for bringing down the government and dragging the electorate to the polls yet again. So we have something of a standoff.

Today, the socialists twitched, saying that they would launch a no-confidence motion if the Prime Minister fails to seek the confidence of the Belgian parliament.

The government has said no.

We will see tomorrow if Belgium still has a government.

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.

Let’s not ruin a beautiful evening

European leaders’ beer summit as Britain dines alone

After Wednesday night’s inconclusive Brexit dinner, French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel walked back to their hotel together.

After a leisurely 25-minute stroll through Brussels’ old town, Macron received a text message from Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel: “Come and join us.”

A few minutes later Macron, Merkel, Bettel and Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel were sat round a convivial table on the city’s Grand-Place, beers in hand.

My favorite part of this story, though, comes from VRT, which notes that Visitors from Germany and the US struck up a conversation with the leaders. Inevitably, someone asked about Brexit, to which Angela Merkel replied:

It’s a beautiful evening, let’s not spoil it!

Elections 2018

Belgium went to the polls on Sunday for local and provincial elections. I don’t have a vote in the provincial elections but I do for the local ones and, after the polls closed, spent far too much time watching the results come in on the VRT Website.

I was impressed when Herstappe declared a result after only an hour and a half of counting a paper ballot. Not so impressed when I realised that the community has only 88 residents and 7 council seats. The Belgians do like their devolution.

Being a bit of a political nerd, I find watching the results fascinating, but trying to get a sense of the province (I am looking, almost entirely at the Flemish news and have pretty much no idea what has happened in the Francophone part of the country) from this sort of piecemeal information can be both challenging and misleading. This is compounded by the fact that party lists headed by an incumbent mayor have tended to do well.

With that disclaimer in place, it looks to me that Flanders has seen something of a shift to the margins with the Greens and far-right Vlaams Belang doing well, mainly at the expense of the Flemish Nationalist N-VA. Locally (for me), the N-VA took a lot of votes — and almost all of their seats — from the Vlaams Belang and I had hoped that we could see the effective end of the far-right for good. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Among the more mainstream parties, the socialists have done badly and the Christian Democrats remain the biggest party overall. The Liberals seem to have improved their position where they were already doing well and struggled where they didn’t have much of a presence to begin with, although Fabian Lefevere points out that, had these been national elections, OpenVLD would have been left with the balance of power.

The big question now is whether the cordon sanitaire will hold. This was an agreement among the Flemish parties 2004 to have nothing to do with Vlaams Blok. That party became Vlaams Belang in 2006 and, although a new agreement was never signed, no party has entered a coalition with Vlaams Belang in the 12 years of it’s existence.

Hopefully this situation will continue but, with the Vlaams Belang within negotiating distance of a coalition in several communities (most notably Ninove, where they won 40% of the vote under the list name Forza Ninove), we will have to wait and see.

A local party for local people

It’s Local Election day in Belgium on Sunday and, in my part of the world, there’s a new kid on the block. One of the parties standing is determinedly local and claiming to eschew ideology in favour of pragmatic solutions to local issues.

They are not unique and I have subsequently become aware of several other parties standing in a single community. Obviously, I know little to nothing of other campaigns but here the new kids look quite appealing. The party is made up up a mix of business owners, liberals and others and their program does promise to be as pragmatic as they suggest.

The only things that put me off a bit is their newness and the fact that, as far as I can tell, only two people on the list have any actual experience of local government.

That and The League of Gentlemen.

On a related note, local elections in Belgium are well worth taking seriously because (compared to the UK), local councils have a remarkable amount of power. The country as a whole is very decentralised and when you look at the number of things for which the town council has direct responsibility, it becomes clear just this decentralisation has gone.

Pelty McPeltface

File this under inevitable, but still funny.

The neighbouring Belgian towns of Neerpelt and Overpelt are to merge and a new name is being sought for the merged municipality.

The final decision as to the new name is in November, at which point we will discover whether or not the local Limburgers will find themselves living in Pelty McPeltface.