New Belgian government formation: Justice minister throws in the towel

New Belgian government formation: Justice minister throws in the towel
Koen Geens © Belga

Federal justice minister Koen Geens, the latest politician to sound out the political parties on the creation of a new federal government, yesterday handed in his resignation to the King.

Geens was due to go to the palace at 18.00 on Friday evening, and took the surprising step of asking the king to be relieved of the mandate he was given two weeks ago. The king accepted, and will himself begin talks with the main political parties on Monday.

Geens remains in his post as justice minister in the caretaker government. 

My plans were crossed by the declarations of one party,” he explained on leaving the palace. “A definitive veto was announced against the N-VA.”

The “one party” he referred to was the French-speaking socialist party PS under president Paul Magnette. At several points in the past week, Magnette made it clear his party would not even contemplate entering a coalition with the N-VA of Bart De Wever.

The two parties are the largest in their respective halves of the country: PS in Wallonia and Brussels, and N-VA in Flanders. They are also diametrically opposed politically.

The PS was relying on the possibility of creating a purple-green coalition: socialists PS and Flemish equivalent sp.a), conservatives (MR and Open VLD) and greens (Ecolo and Groen) together with CD&V. The purple-yellow option, involving the N-VA, was blown out of the water. 

But that plan ran up against the unwillingness of the Flemish parties, led by Geens’ own party CD&V, to see a national government in which the Flemish parties were on the side of minority. By cherry-picking the smaller Flemish parties and pointedly excluding the N-VA (and by extension CD&V), Magnette was essentially painting himself and the country into a corner.

Asked after his resignation whether the decision was to attach CD&V’s wagon definitively to N-VA, Geens replied, “That is a matter for our president.”

The party president being Joachim Coens, who had himself (together with MR’s Georges-Louis Bouchez) been given the job by the king that Geens had just given up.

“For the stability of the country, it was essential that N-VA would take part [in a coalition]. Call me a dreamer perhaps, but on the issues it seemed to me that a coalition was possible. Some, however, found it undesirable.”

The question now is: if two elder statesmen (Didier Reynders and Johan Vande Lanotte) and two party presidents (Coens and Bouchez), together with Magnette himself and one seasoned political insider (Geens) have not been able to find the key to creating a government, who might the king call upon next? And if that option seems doomed, is Belgium facing a set of new elections?

All parties will have the weekend to mull over those questions, before the king makes up his mind on Monday.

Alan Hope

The Brussels Times

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