Prime minister Charles Michel takes a plane for Marrakesh today, determined to communicate Belgium’s support for the United Nations’ migration pact, despite the fact that he leaves behind the collapse of his majority government over that very issue. Michel (pictured) and his supporters are adamant that the N-VA – the largest party in the government coalition – has forced the issue by offering the ultimatum to Michel: travel to Marrakesh and you govern without us. The N-VA, on the other hand, insist that Michel has forced them out of the government by his intransigence.
“If prime minister Michel leaves for Marrakesh, he is de facto sacking us from the government,” N-VA president Bart De Wever told a press conference on Saturday evening. “Then he is pushing us out of the government.”
The distinction is crucial to N-VA: as past events have shown, parties who bring about the premature fall of a government in Belgium pay for it at the ballot box, the last example being Open VLD as led by Alexander De Croo. N-VA is currently, according to the latest poll, the largest party in Flanders, but any loss of public support would still be a loss.
But it is now a battle of words. The demise of this majority has been on the cards since N-VA made its position clear on the UN pact. With a list of 30 objections that essentially boil down to an opposition to unregulated mass migration, the party set a collision course with every other party in parliament other than the Vlaams Belang.
When Michel received assurances that he could count on the support on this issue of even opposition parties CD&V and the Ecolo-Groen alliance, it was clear that N-VA would not be able to stop the Pact from being signed. Once that was established, they could no longer serve in the government – particularly as they were supplying the country’s minister in charge of migration.
The matter dragged on and on, however. A meeting of key ministers was postponed when N-VA released an online campaign expressing opposition to the Pact in inflammatory terms that were welcomed by Vlaams Belang – who immediately picked up the baton when N-VA scrapped the campaign. Michel took the question to the parliament’s foreign affairs committee and then to the plenary session of members, receiving majority support both times. Friday’s ministerial meeting did not broach the subject, which was picked up again on Saturday evening, when Michel forced the issue – he would be getting on a plane to Marrakesh on Sunday, and let the chips fall where they may.
The question now is how Michel can go on governing with a minority coalition, in order to avoid a snap election just months before regular parliamentary elections are due. He may be able to rely on N-VA support on some matters, and opposition support on others, but each matter that is raised between now and May will have to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis.
The posts held until now by N-VA politicians, including the job of secretary of state for asylum and migration, face no shortage of place-fillers. Among those being mentioned are Pieter De Crem, who will leave parliament at the elections, but whose experience ensures he is a safe pair of hands for home affairs in the place of Jan Jambon. Migration could go to the ever-popular Maggie De Block, who held the job before, while secretary of state for agriculture and social integration, Denis Ducarme, could step into the shoes of defence minister Sander Loones, who only got the job in November.