The Flemish liberal Alexander De Croo will on Thursday be sworn in as Belgium’s new prime minister.
The appointment is a major breakthrough in Belgian politics: the country has not had a formal government for nearly two years. But that doesn’t mean the new prime minister and his coalition government are expected to have a smooth ride through to the next election in 2024.
The breadth of the new government is reflected by its nickname — the Vivaldi coalition after the Italian composer’s Four Seasons concertos — because it encompasses four parts of the political spectrum, and seven parties. They are the French and Dutch-speaking liberals, socialists and greens, and the Dutch-speaking Christian democrats.
Leading such a coalition in the midst of a pandemic would prove quite a challenge for any politician. Here are five things to know about the 44-year-old De Croo and the tasks that lie ahead.
1. Politics is in the genes
Alexander is the son of the well-known Belgian politician Herman De Croo, who was a member of the Flemish parliament until last year’s elections.
But that’s not to say the younger De Croo always dreamt of leading his country: he started his career working in the private sector for a decade, including at the Boston Consulting Group — reportedly in a bid to distance himself from his father’s career.
He made the switch to politics in 2009, when he was elected without any political experience to be the party leader of the Flemish liberals of Open VLD, succeeding former Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.
Since then, Alexander followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a federal minister in 2012, continuing in Charles Michel’s government in 2014 as the minister in charge of development and the digital agenda. After the Flemish nationalists left government in 2018, he became minister of finance, a position he held until today.
But by becoming prime minister, Alexander achieves a first for the De Croo family.
2. He’s already caused a government collapse, and a world record
Only one year after he entered politics, De Croo was responsible for the fall of the Belgian government.
As the newly elected party president of the Flemish liberals, he pushed the-then federal government of Yves Leterme to find a solution to a constitutional dispute over voting in the constituency of Brussels and its surroundings. Although the issue was fairly technical, it was also hugely politically contentious in Flanders.
When the government failed to find a solution, De Croo determined in April 2010 that his party would leave the government, which led to its collapse. After new elections in June 2010, the country saw a period of over 500 days without a government — setting a new world record.
3. He’s only PM because of a Belgian compromise
At first glance De Croo is well-positioned to be the country’s leader: He’s a Flemish politician who speaks French very well — no small detail in Belgian politics — and has the experience to lead a team with a lot of new faces. As the current deputy PM, he will ensure some continuity amid the pandemic.
But the fact remains that his appointment will see the leader of only the fourth largest party in the coalition in charge of the government. (That’s not even counting the nationalist New Flemish Alliance and far-right Vlaams Belang, which are not in government despite being the two biggest parties in Flanders.)
De Croo’s partner in negotiating to form the government, the French-speaking socialist Paul Magnette, was in some way a more obvious choice as his party is the biggest in the coalition. But the French-speaking liberals firmly opposed Magnette becoming prime minister and instead advocated for current holder Sophie Wilmès to stay in post.
For the Flemish liberals and the Christian democrats, after three Francophone prime ministers in Wilmès, Michel and Elio Di Rupo, it was time to put a Flemish politician in Belgium’s top post.
4. He’ll need to make friends fast
De Croo will lead a government conceived not on political love but on necessity.
Stitching together a majority is never easy in Belgian politics, but it was harder than ever after the May 2019 elections. The anti-immigration, separatist Vlaams Belang scored a huge win in Belgium’s northern region of Flanders. This stood in stark contrast to a win by the Greens in Brussels and the southern, French-speaking part of the country, leaning further to the left.
The defeat of all parties in the outgoing Michel government led to existential questioning and leadership changes in several of those parties.
Earlier this year the two biggest parties in the country, the New Flemish Alliance and the French-speaking Parti Socialiste, started talking seriously about a coalition, but ultimately they couldn’t find enough partners to build a majority.
The current seven-party coalition is ideologically fragmented and hasn’t spent much time negotiating the coalition agreement, because it took so much time to find a coalition in the first place. That means a lot of key discussions will have to be ironed out in the next couple of years.
5. Corona is key
De Croo will now lead Belgium’s National Security Council, which is responsible for handling the country’s response to the coronavirus. It is riven by internal disagreement, as it represents the different Belgium governments. He takes the steering wheel as the outgoing Belgian government faces increasing criticism for its recent decision to relax coronavirus rules amid a rising number of infections.
The impact of the crisis on the Belgian economy has also been considerable. On top of that, Belgium’s parliament has not voted on a proper budget for years because of the political crisis — although that hasn’t stopped Belgian politicians finding money for pet projects.
When it comes to cash, each of the seven governing parties has brought its wish list to the table: the greens want more money for tackling climate and switching away from nuclear energy, while the socialists want higher minimum pensions and the liberals want to avoid new taxes.
One of the first tasks for the new government will be agreeing on a coronavirus economic recovery plan.