The federal parliament has approved a motion to set up a special committee to look into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
However members stopped short of approving an investigative committee, as some had been demanding. An investigative committee has all the powers of an investigating magistrate, and can hear witnesses under oath, subpoena witnesses and demand to be provided with all types of evidence.
The proposal to create a special committee received the support of all but three parties. CDH abstained, while the far-right Vlaams Belang and the far-left PVDA voted against after the idea of an investigative committee was rejected.
The Groen-Ecolo coalition had also called for an investigative committee, but voted for the lesser option in the end.
“We are in favour of a parliamentary committee of inquiry, but if we vote against a special committee, we have nothing,” the group’s fraction leader Kristof Calvo said.
The committee has a broad remit: the country’s preparedness for tackling a large-scale health crisis, the information available to Belgium starting from the December outbreak in China, the management of strategic stocks of medical equipment and medicines, the coordination and implementation of measures to combat the epidemic, the guidance and support given to hospitals, the decision-making process involved in the lockdown, the role of the crisis centre, the non-medical aspects of the crisis, and recommendations for the future.
The committee will be made up of 17 members of parliament including a chair. It will be accompanied by four experts, who will spend the next two months preparing a detailed mandate for the committee, so that it can get immediately to work after the summer recess.
Calvo also pointed out that according to the parliamentary rules, Open VLD should provide the committee’s chair. However some members of that party – most notably health minister Maggie De Block – played a leading role in the government’s response to the crisis, he said, and called for an assurance of the independence of the committee’s chair.
The greens, Flemish socialists SP.A and DéFI all would have preferred an investigative committee, and insisted they would vote to turn the existing committee into one if the new committee encountered any official resistance.