Nicolas Maeterlinck

Geens throws in the towel, what now?

Almost nine months since the federal elections a new federal coalition seems further away than ever. The man given the task of paving the way for coalition talks to get under way Koen Geens (Flemish Christian democrat) gave the King his final report and resignation on Friday evening. Mr Geens was due to report to King Filip on Monday. However, he saw no point in continuing over the weekend. 

Media interviews by the Francophone socialist leader Paul Magnette had made it clear that the largest Francophone party in the Federal Parliament was not prepared to enter talks with the party with the largest number of seats in the Federal Parliament, the Flemish nationalist party N-VA.

Mr Geens’ resignation would seem to deal the final death blow to the idea of a so-called “purple-yellow” coalition made up of the socialists and liberals from both sides of the linguistic divide and the Flemish nationalists.

Given that neither the far right Vlaams Belang (18 seats) and the hard left PVDA/PTB (12 seats) will be considered as potential coalition partners, the only other option is what has become known as a “Vivaldi” coalition. A Vivaldi coalition would consist of no fewer than 7 parties from across the political spectrum. It would include the liberals, socialists and greens from both sides of the linguistic divide as well as the Flemish Christian democrats.

As a socialist/liberal/green coalition would only have the 75 of the 150 MPs in the Federal Parliament, the participation of the Flemish Christian democrats in the coalition is essential to it having a working majority. However, the party leadership is loath to participate in a coalition that wouldn’t have a majority of the federal MPs elected in Flanders.

Belgium has been without a federal government with full powers for over 14 months since the Flemish nationalists quit the government led by Charles Michel over the UN’s Marrakech migration accord. Although the caretaker government take decisions to ensure the day to day running of the country, its hands are tied with regard to important structural issues such as the budget.

Since December 2018 the Federal Government has had to work with so-called “provisional twelfths”, monthly sums that equate to one twelfth of the last budget that was passed when the government still enjoyed full powers. While this is generally an acceptable solution for the weeks or couple of months after an election while a government is being formed, it poses budgetary dangers if it is applied for a longer period. Earlier this week the National Bank of Belgium expressed concerns about the mounting budget deficit.

A solution muted by a number of commentators is an emergency government to get the budget back on track. As ministers don’t necessarily have to be elected, this government could be made up (in part) of experts or technocrats.   

New elections?

Another option is new elections. However, this begs the question of whether this would provide a way out of the impasse. If the opinion polls are to be believed the chances are they probably wouldn’t.

Furthermore an election campaign would put things on hold with regard to progress on the formation of the new Federal Government for a further 6 weeks. King Filip will announce what is to be the next move sometime on Monday.