Seven parties strike deal on new Belgian government

The seven parties that have been negotiating a new government accord have reached a deal.  The Flemish and Francophone socialists, liberals and greens and the Flemish Christian democrats will form what has been dubbed the ‘Vivaldi Coalition’.

Belgium has been struggling to form a new federal government since the general election on 26 May 2019.  Ever since the Flemish nationalists quit the cabinet in December 2018 Belgium has been administered by a minority government, for the past three months by a government with special powers to tackle the corona crisis that enjoyed support from the opposition benches.

The new government's programme will be put to the rank and file of the seven parties on Wednesday evening for approval.  After a swearing in ceremony at the palace on Thursday morning with the new ministers Belgium will have a new government. A government declaration will then be delivered to parliament. Due to corona the statement will be made in the European Parliament building to allow lawmakers to observe social distancing.  After a vote the new government will enjoy full powers.

Agreement on a government programme clears the way for party leaders to nominate federal ministers and junior ministers (confusingly called 'secretaries of state' in Belgium).  The government will have an equal number of Flemish and Francophone ministers as is required by the constitution: seven Flemish ministers, seven Francophones plus a number of secretaries of state, whose mother tongue is immaterial.  The PM is language neutral. Flemish liberal Alexander De Croo will become the new prime minister.  The new government does not possess a majority among Flemish lawmakers, so in order to deflect criticism in Flanders that the new administration is weighted in favour of Francophones a Fleming is the obvious choice.

Alexander De Croo and socialist leader Magnette, who have been heading the talks, met with King Filip at the palace at 10AM. Afterwards the palace announced King Filip had extended their mission.  

The new ministers will take the oath of office at a ceremony at the palace at 10AM on Thursday. The names of ministers will be announced Wednesday evening.  The socialists are eyeing social departments, the liberals a financial one with the greens keen on climate policy.

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Senior VRT political correspondent Bart Verhulst says the new government programme contains few surprises.

3.2 billion euros of the new budget will be spent on fresh initiatives: cash is being earmarked to boost the economy after the corona crisis: around 1 billion on the digitalisation of the government administration, spending on the railways and climate polict, some 2.3 billion on social policy including a rise for the lowest pensions taking them to 1,580 euros a month by the end of this parliament. Minimum benefits will also be increased. People caring for relatives will also be rewarded more adequately.

1.2 billion has been earmarked to improve wages and working conditions in the health care sector and to cut hospital bills. 4,500 extra staff will be recruited in the health care sector. The health budget will be allowed to grow 2.5% a year above inflation.

900,000 euros is being set aside for security policy, the justice department and the police.  1,600 new police officers will be recruited every year.  These will chiefly be neighbourhood police officers.

The armed forces too will get extra cash. Summary justice will be extended to allow the system to deal with rioters, shoplifters and street criminality.

Belgium is at long last getting its driving licences with penalty points that will be used to punish repeat offenders if they commit serious traffic violations.

Return policy for failed asylum seekers will be made more effective, but child refugees will no longer be locked up while being processed.  More effective measures are also planned to deal with migrants trying to get to the UK via Belgium.

Other measures include: the spending power of people in work will be improved. Tax breaks will make child care cheaper.  Natality leave will be extended to twenty days!

New climate policy includes several measures. By 2026 company cars will have to be emission neutral. Tantalisingly the decision on whether Belgium will close its nuclear power plants in 2025 as required by law has been delayed till the end of next year. Belgium will close its plants ‘unless electricity provisions are jeopardised’.

Extending the deposit system to more forms of packaging will also be looked at.VAT for the demolition and the rebuilding of houses will fall to 6%.

Fresh expenditure requires new income. A digital tax on businesses like Facebook, Google and Amazon is mooted.  Businesses including multinationals are to pay a minimum tax! The government also speaks of a fair contribution by people who have the greatest ability to bear it. People extending their career beyond retirement will enjoy a bonus.

Reforms are also planned to the tax advantages enjoyed by sportsmen and their clubs.

Two ministers in the new administration will be responsible for state reforms. Proposals will have to be worked out by 2024. The aim is to make the Belgian state better, more logical and more efficient.

A wide-ranging debate will be organised in society at large on how Belgium functions and which level of government decides what.  Nothing will be taboo, meaning that powers devolved to the regions and communities may be returned to the federal government.

The government says its objective is a homogenous distribution of powers, meaning that related powers are not split up among various levels of government. Community governments can look forward to greater opportunities to organise care, while the funding will remain a federal responsibility.

A solution to the long running battle between the North and the South over the number of students that are allowed to graduate as doctors and in which fields is also promised.

Interestingly, the new administration is looking at allowing the federal government to exercise shared powers asymmetrically.  Shared powers are powers over policies like employment and care exerted by various levels of government.  Under his system the federal government could use its powers differently in Flanders, Brussels or Wallonia depending on local needs.

Excitingly, the new government plans to give the regions the possibility of turning their holiday into a paid holiday.  It is a returning gripe that the Flemish holiday on 11 July is unpaid, but the Belgian holiday on 21 July is not.  This anomaly could soon be sorted.

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