Belgium’s King Philippe hopes to break the political deadlock in Belgium on Friday by formally appointing the presidents of the country’s two biggest political parties to start coalition talks.
But over a year after Belgium’s elections of May 2019, it’s uncertain whether he’ll succeed in that seemingly modest goal.
Last week, the king asked Bart De Wever of the Flemish nationalist N-VA party and Paul Magnette of the French-speaking Parti Socialiste to start talking to each other and to other party presidents about possible scenarios.
The two will on Friday afternoon report back to the king for the first time, a palace spokesperson confirmed. The king traditionally steers the government talks in Belgium.
Both parties were hesitant to cooperate in the past, as they disagree on almost everything, from migration policy and economic reform to, critically, the future of Belgium.
The Mouvement Réformateur has a lot to lose, as it’s now the only French-speaking party in the government, which it also controls with Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès.
The pandemic and the lasting political deadlock have changed that, however. Belgium hasn’t had a fully functioning government since December 2018 and the country’s political archrivals working together might be the only way out.
But it’s not yet clear whether the two sides have made sufficient progress for the king to fire the starting gun and officially ask them to form a government.
The discussions with the liberals are especially challenging, a person close to the talks said. The French-speaking liberals of the Mouvement Réformateur (MR) and the Dutch-speaking liberals of Open VLD have hitched their future to one another.
Both have reasons to be reluctant. The MR has a lot to lose, as it’s now the only French-speaking party in the government, which it also controls with Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès.
Open VLD fears the Flemish nationalists will do a deal with the French-speaking socialists and trade off constitutional reform for a more left-wing economic policy. “Buy off state reform with a bag of money and an economic-left wing policy? We’re not going to take that,” said Egbert Lachaert, party president of Open VLD.
On Thursday, the liberals handed over their list of demands to De Wever and Magnette. They include labor market reforms, a budgetary trajectory and demands about the implementation of future state reform, according to a person briefed on the negotiations.
It remains to be seen whether De Wever and Magnette can convince the liberals to get on board. Pressure is building on each of the players involved.
The pandemic only adds to that pressure. Belgium is struggling with a surge in cases of the coronavirus, most notably in Antwerp, where De Wever is mayor.
The crisis has exposed the weaknesses of the Belgian system, as health is a competence divided between the federal and regional governments. A post-pandemic recovery plan would also benefit from a fully functioning federal government. Given that Belgium’s post-election puzzle looked almost impossible from Day One, some politicians see this round as the last chance.