After 2 Years of Paralysis, Belgium Forms a (Very Fragile) Government

BRUSSELS — For nearly two years, Belgium has been without a formal government, leaving a country that was already divided by language and politics to endure a pandemic with lame-duck caretakers wielding emergency powers.

A fragile coalition government finally took power on Thursday, ending one of the longest political stalemates in the Western world. Cobbled together from seven political parties, the partnership keeps a growing far-right movement at bay for now and should allow the country to finally pass a budget and consider a Covid-19 recovery package.

But the transition, which is set to be formally adopted by lawmakers this weekend, is not without risk. The governing coalition is now so large that any disagreement has the potential to topple it. And ushering in a new government means forcing out the ministers who have overseen the pandemic response — at a time when infections and hospitalizations are rising.

“The government will do everything possible to contain outbreaks quickly and locally,” the new prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said in a national address in which he compared the pandemic to the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Our country, our economy and our businesses cannot take another general lockdown.”

“In Belgium, it’s always fragile,” said Philippe De Backer, who until Thursday led the government’s emergency task force for coronavirus testing and protective equipment. But he said that the new government would inherit a stockpile of 200 million medical masks and the ability to test 45,000 people a day.

Half the new government’s ministers are women, a first for Belgium, Mr. De Croo said. One of them, Petra De Sutter, a gynecologist, became the first openly transgender minister.

And two years after a fight over migration upended the government, Sammy Mahdi, a 32-year-old son of an Iraqi refugee, became the minister in charge of immigration.

“Our diversity makes us stronger,” Mr. De Croo said.

Caroline Sägesser of the Brussels-based Center for Socio-Political Research and Information, was less optimistic. She said the country was “sliding toward paralysis” because so many people lacked a national identity.

A key reason, she said, is that French and Dutch speakers effectively live in different worlds. They read different newspapers, watch different television stations and attend school in their own languages. News coverage typically focuses on regional, not national, affairs. “The only thing you get that’s national is the weather report,” Ms. Sägesser said. “This was not the case 30 years ago. Our living space has shrunk to our own linguistic community.”

The Belgian Parliament is expected to vote on Saturday to approve the new government, seen as a formality now that the ministers have all taken office. To allow for social distancing under the nation’s public health regulations, the voting has been moved to the cavernous European Parliament, a legislative body of the European Union.

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