Belgian Federal Government gets off to Rocky Start

Belgium, 30 Sep - 21 Oct 2014
Unique Federal Coalition for Belgium... ++ ...but no time for games ++ Progressive voice in bishop synod. by Christophe Ponsard
Unique Federal Coalition for Belgium...

Belgium finds itself with a federal coalition it has never seen before. In mid-October, the five year term of Michel I took off, once again with someone from the French-speaking minority as the Prime Minister.

That’s pretty much the only major resemblance with the previous federal government, Di Rupo I. For starters, Charles Michel, leading figure of the Walloon liberal party (MR) is only 38 years old, making him the youngest Belgian prime minister since 1832. For perspective: The Belgian Revolution took place in 1830.

Another remarkable thing is the relative pace with which the new government was formed. After a mere 136 days Michel and his team took the oath to the king. The only mediatised bump in the road came when the chairmen of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, demanded the negotiators back in August to name the Belgian candidate for the Commission.

It resulted in the Flemish christian-democrats of CD&V having to choose between having the prime minister or a Commissioner. They eventually chose the Commission, nominating Marianne Thyssen, thus giving Michel the pole position as candidate prime minister.

Lastly, there is the name that’s given to the new coalition. In the formation period, the media used the name ‘kamikaze coalition’, which referred to the MR. The party had managed to secure just 25% of the French-speaking vote, while they were the only French-speaking party around the negotiation table. Political analysts spoke of a kamikaze-maneuver by the MR: they would get what they want, but not pushing for a majority of the French-speaking vote would surely backfire in the future. Nevertheless, the MR made the move.

Belgium now has a different name for its government: the Swedish Coalition. It refers to the flag of Sweden: there’s a lot of blue, with the liberals on both sides of the language barrier being the largest political family. There’s also yellow, the colour of the Flemish nationalists of New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). The last party of the coalition, the christian-democrats, can be found in the cross on the Swedish flag.

...but no time for games

Immediately the newly formed centre-right government felt the heath coming from the opposition, containing mostly socialists, greens, and French humanists. Reasons for this are proposed budget cuts and controversies caused by two cabinet members of N-VA.

Minister of Home Affairs and Security, Jan Jambon, had to defend himself for being at a meeting of world war two collaborators in 2001. In an interview he called the collaboration a “mistake”, while also adding that “The people who collaborated with the Nazi’s had their reasons. I did not live in that period.”

The other cabinet member, Theo Francken, who is junior minister responsible for asylum and migration, came under fire because of a 2011 facebook message he posted about immigrants. In it, he questioned “the economic added value” of “Moroccan, Congolese and Algerian” immigrants”

Joined by a N-VA-minister from the Flemish government, he also went to the 90th birthday party of Bob Maes, founder of the Order of Flemish Militants in 1949. In the 1980s it became a paramilitary group that targeted immigrants. Maes had then already left the organisation. As a teenager Maes had also been a member of the Flemish National Union, a political party that collaborated with Nazi Germany during world war two.

This motivated the largest opposition party, the French-speaking socialists of PS, to demand Michel to ask Jambon en Francken to step down. “These persons are not worthy of carrying the large responsibility you have given them”, said French-speaking socialist MP Laurette Onkelinx. Michel refused to do so, using a personal story and saying “I can tell without ambiguity that I and the whole government with me condemn the collaboration.”

However, these are but one of the minor problems Michel already has. The opposition calls the proposed budget anti-social, in unisono with labour unions. The unions latter have already called for a 24-hour national strike in December and it’s unsure if government and unions will be able to find each other, with three of the four government parties without any significant union ties.

Progressive voice in bishop synod

With more interest than usual Belgians have looked at the annual bishop synod in the Vatican. Reason for this is an open letter of a participant and bishop of Antwerp, Johan Bonny, published in September. In it, Bonny critiqued the language the Catholic Church uses in regards to love, relations and sexuality, calling it “offensive”.

The letter was branded the first of its kind by experts, who called the clarity of voice Bonny used about these themes remarkable. With statements like “The Church needs to brake its defensive stance.” and “Bipolar thinking (about personal situations) almost never does justice towards peoples own life stories. The reality is more complex.” clarity was indeed not an issue.

A rare cheer from the LGBT-movement, applauding his progressive stance, supported Bonny to Rome.

BE - 2014 Swedish flag
Source: Nicolas Raymond | CC BY 2.0

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