How the liberal head of government Sophie Wilmès is becoming a competent crisis manager
The rapid spread of the corona virus hit Belgium at the worst possible time. At the beginning of March, Germany’s neighbouring country already lacked an effective government for more than a year and was well on the way to a serious national crisis. But then the Belgians recalled their greatest virtue, compromise, and got to know their Prime Minister afresh.
Crisis at an Inopportune Time
In Europe, people have become accustomed to the fact that Belgium regularly has no government. In 2011 it took the Belgian parties 589 days to form a coalition – a world record. There has also been little foreign coverage of the endless and fruitless exploratory talks that have taken place since the parliamentary elections in May 2019.
There are 12 parties represented in the Chamber of Deputies, more than in any other parliament in an EU member state. As the parties only compete in one of the two major parts of the country, i.e. Flanders or Wallonia, each political tendency is represented twice. For example, there are two liberal, two Christian Democratic and two Green parties.
The possible coalitions to form a majority required the participation of so many parties that no flag of a Caribbean or African state offers enough colour diversity to serve as a name sponsor. The exploratory talks, which were held in all possible constellations, had made so little progress by March that observers were already expecting Belgium to beat its own record.
In this imbroglio situation, nationalists in Flanders and Wallonia were already hoping that Belgium would take another step towards its own dissolution as a federal state and transfer other important competences to the two powerful regions.
Since October, the country’s destiny has been steered by a provisional transitional government led by French-speaking Liberal (MR) Sophie Wilmès. Wilmès, who had served as minister for the national lottery in the previous government, was hardly known in Belgium. She received attention, if at all, because of her gender, for the kingdom had never seen a female head of government in its 190-year history.
This was the Belgium that had to react to the rapid spread of the corona virus at the beginning of March. A country in political crisis under the provisional leadership of an inexperienced prime minister. The belligerent Belgian parties could have exploited this situation to gain an advantage in parliamentary intrigues. Instead, they took a profoundly Belgian tradition and found a (Belgian) compromise.
Liberals Steer Belgium Through the Storm
A broad coalition of six parties, including the powerful Socialist Party (PS), expressed its confidence in the current transitional government of Sophie Wilmès on 17 March and also granted her far-reaching powers for six months in order to be fully able to act during the Corona crisis. This means that after more than a year, Belgium now has a proper, functioning government again – at least for six months.
Wilmès, whose minority government consists of her own party (MR), the Flemish Liberals (OpenVLD) and the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), spoke in an almost empty Chamber of Parliament, which, due to the risk of contagion, only the leaders of the political groups were allowed to enter. In her speech she made it clear that she wanted to deal responsibly with the trust placed in her and that she understood her mission to be narrowly defined: “my only task is to protect the health of our people”. After six months at the latest, she wanted to ask the vote of confidence.
A positive surprise, however, is not only the agreement between the political parties, but also Sophie Wilmès herself.
In recent weeks, the liberal head of government has successfully transformed herself from an unknown minister into a sovereign crisis manager and stateswoman. In Belgium, she is now not only well-known, but also popular among the general public. Even her political opponents pay tribute to her for her consistently bilingual appearances and her empathic and transparent communication. On Twitter, the Belgians now advertise with the hashtag #keepsophie that Wilmès will remain their prime minister even after the end of the Corona epidemic.
In this respect, Sophie Wilmès already resembles Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte, who has developed from an inconspicuous law professor into a popular head of government and European statesman.
Yet the liberal-Christian Democratic alliance got off to a very bad start in overcoming the crisis, and not only because of the political deadlock. Shortly before the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, Flemish Liberal Health Minister Maggie de Block had millions of masks, that had reached their expiration date, destroyed. For cost reasons, she decided not to replace them.But despite mistakes such as these, the Belgian government has so far been convincing, both through its clear communication and through decisive action. More than some other EU Member States, including Germany, it took drastic measures to combat the corona virus and, according to a study by the Imperial College of London, prevented up to an additional 500 deaths in March alone.
After the Crisis is Before the Crisis
As in all EU Member States, the economy in Belgium suffers massively from the constraints of public life. Analogous to the measures in Germany, the Belgian parliament has also decided on economic aid amounting to billions. But Belgium’s national debt already amounts to more than 100% of its gross domestic product. This makes it one of the most heavily indebted states in the EU, alongside Greece, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus. It is foreseeable that the corona-related health crisis will be followed by a corona-related economic crisis. It remains to be seen whether the parties will then manage to pull themselves together again. The political crisis is only postponed. But there are at least three reasons for optimism.
Firstly, the media and the scientific community are once again being listened to more and more during the fight against the virus, which in turn is helping to undermine the populists in Flanders and Wallonia. Secondly, the joint fight against the virus unites the Belgians and strengthens their sense of togetherness, even across language barriers. Thirdly, with Sophie Wilmès there could be a person in Belgian politics in the future who enjoys sufficient respect to successfully form a majority government – and to steer the country through the next crisis, whatever that may be.
European Affairs Manager and head of FNF Security Hub.