A busy weekend in Brussels
After a tumultuous Saturday in the streets of Brussels, with ‘gilets jaunes’ protesters coming to a confrontation with the police, many hoped that peace and quiet would return before the evening fell. But no such luck. With the protests having blocked the government neighbourhood throughout the day, the group of core Belgian federal ministers were not able to convene until their streets were accessible again in the evening. And their Core Cabinet meeting proved not any less tumultuous than the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests.
Because on the agenda of the ministers was the political crisis that had kept the focus of Belgians for weeks. Last week, Prime Minister Charles Michel (French-speaking liberal party MR) had gotten an alternate parliamentary majority to sign off on his trip to Marrakesh, Morocco this Monday to sign the UN Migration Pact with fellow heads of state, a pact that the vast majority of both his coalition partners and opposition parties endorse. Recently, the Flemish national party N-VA, the largest Dutch-speaking party, had stated that they could not endorse a government that goes to Marrakesh.
After a week of postponing the Core Cabinet meeting, they finally met Saturday evening to decide whether the Prime Minister would get the support of his government as well to go to Marrakesh. Twenty minutes into the meeting, N-VA left and held a press conference in which they announced that they had been pushed out of the government coalition. The Prime Minister shortly thereafter held a press conference to announce the N-VA had quit the government and thanked them for the hard work and good results they had achieved for the Belgian people the last 4 years.
Moving on with a minority government
The Prime Minister will now continue to govern with a minority government until the next federal elections in May 2019. With this move, new elections before May 2019 have been avoided, although a minority government is a very weakened one. Not only will Charles Michel need to find coalition partners for each piece of legislation that he intends to sign off before the elections, he also needed to replace the N-VA ministers and Secretaries of State in his government.
Businesses in Belgium found a significantly altered political landscape to work with when they went to work today. N-VA Minister of Finance Johan Van Overtveldt has been replaced by Open VLD Minister of Digital Agenda and Postal Services Alexander De Croo. The latter will hand over his portfolio by former MEP and current Secretary of State for Social Fraud, Privacy and North Sea, Philip De Backer.
Minister for Public Health Maggie De Block (Open VLD) will keep her portfolio but will additionally take on her previous portfolio of Migration as well – the portfolio she held when she was the country’s most popular politician. With Migration being high on the agenda towards the elections, it is unclear what this means for the functioning of the Cabinet of Public Health at the moment.
As Brussels is waking up to a different political reality, businesses will need to adapt quickly to this tumultuous political landscape if they are to advance any public affairs objectives ahead of the May 2019 elections. What is clear, however, is that this will be a heavy-lift in any case, with the federal government and N-VA clearly having started the race towards the elections already and with it, changed their policy priorities as well.
Michael Cloots is Director at FTI Consulting in Brussels.
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