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Update on Belgian federal government negotiations

Towards a “Vivaldi-coalition”

In early September, and for the first time in months, there were positive signs that a majority could be found in Belgium willing to form a federal government. After several attempts over the summer that mainly focused on a “purple-yellow” coalition (consisting of the traditional parties, the socialists, liberals and Christian democrats and the Flemish nationalist party N-VA) and a “Vivaldi” coalition (consisting of the traditional parties and the green parties), it was clear that the latter was the more likely to succeed. However, in nearing the end of September, and after several “informateurs”, “koninklijke opdrachthouders/Chargés de mission royale” and “preformateurs”, every possible coalition remains fragile. This has been especially clear since the weekend of 19 and 20 September.

Already a fragile coalition

The first test for the current Vivaldi group, which started negotiations in August, was the collective expression of support by the chairs of the Vivaldi parties for the current Wilmès II government on 17 September, in absence of a new government. In normal circumstances, the Wilmès II government should have resigned by 21 September, or at least sought a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives, as the current minority government only received support for a limited time of 6 months to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. Due to the support of the Vivaldi coalition parties, Wilmès II will govern an additional two weeks, until 1 October.

So far so good, and therefore the weekend of 19 and 20 was crucial to finally launch the Vivaldi coalition, most notably with the introduction of a new Prime Minister. The very first conversation on this topic already proved to be divisive as several parties claimed the position of Prime Minister based on different arguments, such as who is the biggest political family or who is the biggest party in Flanders, as there were already two consecutive Walloon Prime Ministers the past legislatures. That this would be a hard nut to crack was already known, but the president of the Walloon liberals (MR), George-Louis Bouchez, really made the bomb burst as he stated in an interview on 20 September that he was certain that the current Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmès (MR) would stay on. Once again Bouchez provoked his colleagues with personal interviews and tweets. Especially the Flemish socialists (sp.a) were upset and reacted on 21 September that they do not want to continue the coalition talks with the MR.

Despite these difficulties, “preformateurs” Egbert Lachaert (Open Vld) and Conner Rousseau (sp.a) spent a whole afternoon on 21 September trying to save the Vivaldi coalition. Because that did not work, the “preformateurs” decided to go to King Philippe to offer their resignation. However, the King refused that resignation, which is rather an exception. It seems that by refusing this resignation, King Philippe wants to force a new government, but this is only a short-lived tactic. Lachaert and Rousseau will report again by Wednesday 23 September at the latest.

Time is running out

The question is if the remaining days are enough to boost the viability of a possible Vivaldi coalition. Timewise it is getting very difficult to have a new government in place by 1 October, when the Wilmès II Government must resign. This would mean that by the end of this week or latest the beginning of next week the basis of the new government agreement must be approved. The different party congresses could follow after that and the new Prime Minister can make the government statement by 1 October. A vote of confidence in the new government could follow by 3 October.

Alternative?

It is not clear if the Vivaldi group will survive this week. The parties have definitely made it very difficult for themselves by setting a deadline on 1 October. N-VA chairman Bart De Wever expects the Vivaldi parties will continue their attempt to form a government. De Wever made clear that he and his party are ready for opposition as he stated on 21 September: “We will destroy them from the opposition.”

An alternative coalition is of course still possible, but the relationships between a lot of parties have become bitter, especially between the N-VA and the liberal parties. However, a workable alternative could be a Vivaldi coalition without the MR and the Walloon Christian democrats from cdH instead. However, Lachaert has not been prepared to drop his Walloon counterpart so far.

If this is not possible, then there is still the possibility of new elections. As there is still a health crisis ongoing and new elections will not magically bring the solution (especially because populist parties like Vlaams Belang (extreme-right Flemish party) and PVDA/PTB (extreme-left party in Wallonia) will gain new seats according to the latest polls and the other parties do not want to cooperate with them), this remains very unlikely. However, after 486 days of having no federal government with a majority in the House of Representatives, pressure is growing.