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.”

Belgium is notoriously difficult to govern. The wealthy Dutch-speaking region in the north and a poorer French-speaking region in the south each have their own governments, political parties and cultures. That makes the national Parliament a political grab bag, with no party holding close to the majority needed to govern.

The previous national government collapsed in December 2018, toppled by a populist revolt over migration. Belgium’s linguistic and cultural divide magnifies the similar challenges facing leaders across Europe and the United States, where centrist politicians face pressure from their far left and far right. In that way, the new government will be a test, in the heart of the European Union, of whether fractured parties can find common ground.

Mr. De Croo (pronounced “crow”), 44, was sworn in on Thursday as prime minister. A center-right Dutch-speaking politician, he will lead an unlikely coalition that includes the Socialists and the Greens, along with centrists and socially liberal fiscal conservatives. The newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws called it “a government deal worthy of a buffet restaurant.”

With such a range of political views, the government is vulnerable to any dispute. If one party defects, the coalition is likely to collapse.

“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.

The country recently surpassed 10,000 coronavirus deaths and has one of the world’s highest per capita fatality rates. That figure is due in large part to the government’s failure to protect older adults. Nursing home patients accounted for two of every three Covid-19 deaths this spring, and public health officials have acknowledged that the country’s unwieldy bureaucracy slowed their response to the crisis.

Overhauling that system will be challenging, however, as the national government is under constant pressure to give the regions more power. That is especially true in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region, which is home to two right-wing separatist parties. One of them, Vlaams Belang, has risen in power in recent years with a message that is increasingly racist and anti-immigrant.

Vlaams Belang has pledged to work against the national government. At a recent antigovernment demonstration, Nazi symbols were visible among the thousands of protesters who took to the streets.

The failure to form a government had become a long-running and rueful joke in Brussels, an unofficial capital of the European Union. Immediately after Mr. De Croo’s national address, he dashed across town to join other European leaders at a foreign affairs summit meeting.

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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