fotografie peter Hilz (C)

What is a government with power of attorney? What happens now?

After a weekend of talks between no fewer than 10 parties an agreement was reached late on Sunday evening to grant “special powers” to the incumbent minority federal government. But what exactly does this mean and what will happen once the COVID-19 crisis is behind us?

 

What exactly have the parties agreed to?

The current caretaker federal government made up of the Francophone and Flemish liberals and the Flemish Christian democrats and lead by the Francophone liberal Sophie Wilmès will remain in office as a temporary minority government.

It will remain in power for between 3 and 6 months and enjoy the support of 7 opposition parties. Only the far-right Vlaams Belang and the far-left PVDA-PTB are not included in the agreement.

So no emergency government that includes the Francophone socialists and the Flemish Nationalists?

No. Before the weekend the leader of the Flemish nationalists Bart De Wever had proposed the formation of such an emergency government and talks on the formation of such a government.

However, the leaser leader of the Francophone socialists Paul Magnette buried the idea, saying that an army doesn’t change its General (in this case Prime Minister Wilmès) in the middle of a war. 

Is a minority government the same as a government with full powers?

The big difference with a situation since December 2018 whereby Belgium has been governed by a caretaker federal government is that the temporary government will request and should obtain the confidence of the Chamber of Representatives. This means that it will be considered to fully-fledged government.

Although the governing coalition still won’t have a majority, the agreement with the other parties means that it will enjoy the support of a large majority of federal MPs. However, the temporary government’s remit will be limited to addressing the COVID-19 crisis and dealing with the issues that result from it. The temporary government will request and get “special powers” from parliament to enable it to act swiftly and decisively. 

But what are “special powers”?

This means that parliament gives the government extra powers through a “special powers bills”. The bill must receive the backing of a majority of MPs. Once special powers have been granted the government will be able to take a host of decisions without first consulting parliament.

In this case the special powers concern measures deemed necessary to tackle the current COVID-19 crisis and address the issues that stem from it.

The speaker of the Chamber of Representatives Patrick Dewael (Flemish liberal) was leader of the opposition the last time the federal government was granted special power. This was in 1996 under the late Jean-Luc Dehaene (Flemish Christian democrat).

In the 1980’s the then Prime Minister, the late Wilfried Martens used special powers to address the acute socio-economic issues of the time.

Mr Dewael stress that this is not a “blank cheque”. It is parliament that grants the power of attorney in the first place and it retains its right to scrutinise decisions and must also endorse the decisions after they have been taken and enforced. 

What happens now?

Patrick Dewael and Sabine Laruelle (Francophone liberal) will go to King to tell him that their mission has been accomplished. In theory at least the Federal Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès will become “Formateur”.

Her temporary government will ask for the confidence of MPs in the Federal Parliament. This shouldn’t be an issue. The temporary government is to remain in office “for three to six months”.