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Parliament holds marathon session to clear the decks

Federal home affairs minister Annelies Verlinden. © Belga

The federal parliament, now in session, intends to go on into the night to complete a number of tasks before going into its summer recess.

Yesterday’s session went on into the night, and today’s plenary session is expected to do the same.

The recess officially begins next week on 21 July, the national day, and parliament only has a certain number of mandated plenary days, so today’s session – however long it may endure – is the last of the current session.

The most important item on the agenda, as far as the government is concerned, is the new pandemic law.

When the coronavirus first became an issue in Belgium, the government announced a variety of measures including closure of many businesses, mandatory mask wearing and social distancing.

Those measures were based on an old civil defence law intended for specific emergencies, and not for a nationwide – indeed worldwide – emergency, and the legal basis has been questioned in multiple fora, including the courts, who upheld the measures but stressed the need for a more clear legal basis.

The pandemic law, guided through the legislative process by home affairs minister Annelies Verlinden (CD&V), is the government’s response to that demand, but its passage has not been easy so far.

The opposition in parliament, led by N-VA, has tabled a number of amendments to the legislation, each of which resulted in the law being sent back to the Council of State for comments. And the Council of State had its own observations on the government’s proposals, which have also had to be taken into account.

Now N-VA has declared that while against the law, it will no longer raise an issue to be sent to the Council of State, so that Verlinden now faces an open path to passing the bill in the course of today’s session.

In other business, the parliament still has the following cases on its agenda:

A broad series of measures extending the support offered by the government for businesses affected by the coronavirus crisis. The current legislative package expires at the end of this month, and has to be renewed. For the time being, that extension will last until the end of September.

Those affected include groups from those on social benefits to businesses and the self-employed, meaning all parties have an interest in seeing the legislation through.

A fixed payment time of 60 days for business-to-business transactions, introduced by majority party CD&V to help small businesses cope with liquidity problems. The law would also close existing loopholes than allow businesses in arrears – in particular larger business who have the upper hand in negotiations – to claim a longer payment period.

The Covid-Safe ticket is due to be introduced in mid-August, aimed at making it possible to stage mass events. The federal parliament has already approved the measure. Now it has also to be approved in the regions, which will take place in Flanders on Monday, and in the other regions later.