BRUSSELS, December 18 -- Belgian Prime minister Charles Michel lost his majority after a clash with the right-wing N-VA party over the UN Migration Pact.
A dispute in Belgium's center-right government about the UN Migration Pact ended with the Flemish nationalists of N-VA leaving the ruling coalition. Prime Minister Charles Michel was left with a minority cabinet, but still went to Marrakesh to ratify the UN pact with the support of the Parliament. According to the opposition, he should face a vote of confidence in the Parliament, and if this happens he will probably lose. Constitutional experts are divided about the situation. Michel is trying to save his government and avoid a national election five months earlier than scheduled.
But considering how antagonistic the N-VA has become towards its former coalition partners, every scenario is possible.
BRUSSELS, December 9 -- Prime minister Charles Michel takes a plane for Marrakesh today, determined to communicate Belgium’s support for the United Nations’ migration pact, despite the fact that he leaves behind the collapse of his majority government over that very issue.
Michel (pictured) and his supporters are adamant that the N-VA – the largest party in the government coalition – has forced the issue by offering the ultimatum to Michel: travel to Marrakesh and you government without us. The N-VA, on the other hand, insist that Michel has forced them out of the government by his intransigence. “If prime minister Michel leaves for Marrakesh, he is de facto sacking us from the government,” N-VA president Bart De Wever told a press conference on Saturday evening. “Then he is pushing us out of the government.”
The distinction is crucial to N-VA: as past events have shown, parties who bring about the premature fall of a government in Belgium pay for it at the ballot box, the last example being Open VLD as led by Alexander De Croo. N-VA is currently, according to the latest poll, the largest party in Flanders, but any loss of public support would still be a loss. But it is now a battle of words. The demise of this majority has been on the cards since N-VA made its position clear on the UN pact. With a list of 30 objections that essentially boil down to an opposition to unregulated mass migration, the party set a collision course with every other party in parliament other than the Vlaams Belang.
When Michel received assurances that he could count on the support on this issue of even opposition parties CD&V and the Ecolo-Groen alliance, it was clear that N-VA would not be able to stop the Pact from being signed. Once that was established, they could no longer serve in the government – particularly as they were supplying the country’s minister in charge of migration. The matter dragged on and on, however. A meeting of key ministers was postponed when N-VA released an online campaign expressing opposition to the Pact in inflammatory terms that were welcomed by Vlaams Belang – who immediately picked up the baton when N-VA scrapped the campaign. Michel took the question to the parliament’s foreign affairs committee and then to the plenary session of members, receiving majority support both times. Friday’s ministerial meeting did not broach the subject, which was picked up again on Saturday evening, when Michel forced the issue – he would be getting on a plane to Marrakesh on Sunday, and let the chips fall where they may.
The question now is how Michel can go on governing with a minority coalition, in order to avoid a snap election just months before regular parliamentary elections are due. He may be able to rely on N-VA support on some matters, and opposition support on others, but each matter that is raised between now and May will have to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis.
The posts held until now by N-VA politicians, including the job of secretary of state for asylum and migration, face no shortage of place-fillers. Among those being mentioned are Pieter De Crem, who will leave parliament at the elections, but whose experience ensures he is a safe pair of hands for home affairs in the place of Jan Jambon. Migration could go to the ever-popular Maggie De Block, who held the job before, while secretary of state for agriculture and social integration, Denis Ducarme, could step into the shoes of defence minister Sander Loones, who only got the job in November.
If that support is forthcoming, he will then go to a plenary session of parliament for their imprimatur. That done – and opposition greens and socialists have promised their support so it likely will be done – the Flemish nationalists N-VA will probably have no other choice but to step down from the government.
The government has been teetering on the edge of collapse for some weeks now, since N-VA appeared to reverse their previous support for the Pact and become outright opponents. The party itself, and its front-man on this issue, the combative asylum and migration minister Theo Francken, came out with a dossier of 30 points to which it objects.
Those can be summed up under eight main headings: whether the Pact is legally binding; the way it accords universal rights to refugees and migrants; the question of national sovereignty; the grant of identity papers; the provision by states of information on migration; the question of legal migration; the duty of fair, informed and objective journalism free of discrimination; and the question of return of migrants to their homeland.
Matters came to a head yesterday, when a planned meeting of the prime minister with his vice-premiers was cancelled at the last minute to allow bilateral talks to go ahead. The trigger: the launch online of a new campaign by the N-VA against the Migration Pact, with the issue framed in the most inflammatory terms, including photos of women in burqa, Arab youths hanging around shopping centres and a rubber dinghy crossing the sea, filled with all young men.
The campaign provoked horror among other parties, and shock within the N-VA itself, with home affairs minister Jan Jambon describing it as a poor choice of photos and a mistake by the communications department. Peter De Roover, fraction leader for N-VA in the parliament, said, “The tone of the campaign is not the tone I myself have adopted, because we have no need of that to be convincing.” The campaign was later revealed to have been the brainchild of Joachim Pohlmann, the party spokesman considered to be one of Bart De Wever's right-hand men.
Vlaams Belang’s Filip De Winter, meanwhile, congratulated the N-VA on its campaign, which the party promptly withdrew, only to see Vlaams Belang adopt its style and images for its own opposition to the Pact.
The day closed with N-VA meeting in closed session, and not a word leaking out, while Charles Michel planned his appearances before the committee and before parliament. Later this afternoon will show whether, as expected, he gets the support he needs from members to go to Marrakesh, and what the reaction of N-VA will be. After that, the question will be, does the country go to the polls for the second time in as many months, or can Michel soldier on with a minority administration until elections are due in May?
Salah Abdesalam, a Belgian national, is suspected to be hiding in the Brussels area and carrying what might be an explosive device. Charles Michel, Belgium's prime minister, moved to increase the state of alert in Brussels to the highest level early on Saturday in response to the threat.
Metro services and major events have since been suspended as hundreds of police officers and soldiers fanned out across the city. Residents have been asked to stay indoors and avoid crowded areas amid the alert, which is in force only in Brussels.
Emergency phone lines have been set up to report suspicious activity, as well as sightings of Abdesalam.
Belgium has been at the forefront of efforts to track down those involved in helping execute the November 13 attacks in Paris, which targeted a concert hall, football stadium, cafe and shopping mall. On Thursday, the country's security services launched raids in the Molenbeek and Jette neighbourhoods of Brussels and made further arrests on Saturday.
The attacks were blamed on the Islamic State (IS) group, and several of the attackers are believed to have received training in Syria.
The apparent ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was a Belgian national who fought with IS and is suspected of helping to inspire or direct previous attacks targeting France. Since the start of October, IS has launched a number of attacks against targets outside the territory it primarily operates in, including in France, Lebanon, and Turkey.
The group has also claimed credit for bringing down on October 31 a Russian airliner in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula by smuggling a bomb on board.