Belgiums Charles Michel, painted into a corner by his coalition partners, has made a huge political gamble.
With the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) crashing out of the government Saturday, the Belgian prime ministers small coalition is venturing out into unknown political waters.
For a country like Belgium, whose complex political landscape isnt exactly known for its stability, finding yourself in government without a parliament majority is far from ideal.
And yet the alternative was unthinkable: Giving in to the demands of the Flemish nationalists, who refused to back the U.N. global migration pact, would have meant taking up rank alongside countries like Italy, Bulgaria and Austria, with their hardline immigration policies and populist-minded governments.
Kris Peeters, Charles Michel and Alexander De Croo attend a press conference after a Ministers council meeting of the Federal Government in Brussels on December 9 | Dirk Waem/AFP via Getty Images
The gamble Michel is making, therefore, isnt so much about domestic policy as it is about Belgiums credibility in Europe. Its about choosing its camp: either among the cheerleaders of Europe and liberalism, like Emmanuel Macron, or among the populist opportunists, like Viktor Orbán and Sebastian Kurz.
In saying goodbye to his old government, Michel appears to have — finally — made a choice.
The road ahead is still uncertain. For now, he still holds the keys to Rue de la Loi 16, the official seat of the Belgian government. A new minority Cabinet will replace his old team. Hell take his jet to Marrakech, where hell join other leaders in signing the U.N.s Global Compact for Migration — the non-binding text that proved to be a bridge too far for his biggest coalition partner.
The split was a long time coming.
It was a bold move, in 2014, for Michel, a Francophone liberal and part of a younger generation of Belgian politicians, to team up with the conservative Flemish nationalists. Their leader, Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever, who dreams about Flemish independence, was never an ideal partner for the federal government.
But Michel and De Wever found a mutual ambition to finally install a center-right government, after three decades of socialist reign in Belgium.
N-VAs Bart De Wever after a Ministers council meeting of the Federal Government in Brussels, on December 8 | Thierry Roge/AFP via Getty Images
And yet it didnt quite work out like they had hoped. The coalition, much like its predecessors, had its fair share of conflicts, crises and televised drama.
Fixing the system sounded good. But in reality the budget was still deeply in the red and the stalling economy was among Europes worst performing. Still, Michel managed to escape crisis after crisis, so much so that he saw himself nicknamed the “Houdini” prime minister.
And then an unexpected — and in Belgian politics, unprecedented — debate took center stage in the coalition: Belgiums place on the world stage.
From 1945 on, this modest European country had chosen a foreign policy of internationalism combined with a staunchly pro-Europe stance. With the N-VAs arrival in government, this tradition was under serious strain.
It shouldnt have come as a surprise. De Wever and his N-VA are a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament, where they fraternize with the U.K. Conservatives and Polands Law and Justice Party. Instead of unbridled faith in the EU, they share the Brits and Poles critical approach to the European institutions.
As migration took over the European and domestic agenda, the divisions between Michel and his N-VA partners grew even more fraught.
The N-VA made no secret of its contempt for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her motto of Wir schaffen das (“Well manage this”). The party sees the French-German alliance between Macron and the German chancellor as a real threat to the EU.
The two coalition partners were on a collision course — it was only a matter of time before something pushed them over the edge.
That moment edged closer when Austria announced that it would not support the new U.N. text on migration, opening the door for others to follow suit, including several Eastern European countries.
If Michels future is uncertain, the N-VAs is easier to predict.
If the N-VA felt bound to oppose the pact, Michel, too, found himself forced into a corner.
In his four years as prime minister, Michel has made a show of his unconditional support for the European cause, for multilateralism, the U.N. and, of course, his close friendships with young leaders like Macron or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Theirs is a club Michel wants to belong to.
In the past four years, this never led to any real political tensions in Belgium. After all: Foreign policy is of little interest to most of the Belgian electorate. But for years, the N-VA has been pushing migration onto the agenda, especially since the March 2016 terror attacks in Brussels. Past election results prove theyve become adept at winning over right-wing parts of the electorate that used to vote for the extreme right Vlaams Belang.
With the issue of the U.N. migration pact, the N-VA found a way to mark its territory even more forcefully, demanding a Belgian abstention and forcing Michels hand.
Michels decision to go on with a minority Cabinet is a desperate attempt to survive the next six months — when Belgium will face regional, federal and European elections.
But can he cling on that long? His government is likely to last long enough for him to fly to Marrakech, play the role Belgium is expected to play, and ratify the treaty in New York in mid-December.
Beyond that, things look far more uncertain. If things fall apart, Belgians could be headed to the polls in January, then again in May. Absurdity has always been a characteristic of Belgian politics — this election cycle perhaps more so than ever.
If Michels future is uncertain, the N-VAs is easier to predict.
Chances are that, by the time Belgium faces its next elections, the party will have reaffirmed and even strengthened its electoral position on the back of a strong anti-migration campaign. Indeed, top N-VA politicians have already dubbed Michels new government the “Marrakech coalition.”
Belgium may well fall out of the Macron-Trudeau fan club in the near future, and make new friends in Central Europe, the U.K. and Italy instead. Unless, of course, the prime minister has a couple more (very) clever tricks up his sleeve.
Wouter Verschelden is a Belgian journalist and founder of newsmonkey.be