Belgium’s king held talks with the country’s political leaders on Wednesday in an effort to find a way out of a governmental crisis following the resignation of prime minister Charles Michel.
King Philippe met party chiefs including former prime minister Elio Di Rupo, who leads the country’s francophone socialist party, and Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish nationalist N-VA, to assess whether a solution can be found without bringing forward elections scheduled for May 2019.
The royal palace said Mr Michel’s resignation had been “suspended” while talks continue. Belgium’s king plays an unusually active political role for a constitutional monarch. Under the constitution he can direct consultations with parties on coalition building and hand specific politicians the task of taking soundings on his behalf.
Mr Michel announced he would resign on Tuesday night following a stormy debate with opposition parties over his plans to lead a minority government until May’s vote. The shock resignation marked the escalation of a crisis that began earlier this month when the N-VA quit his government over its opposition to a UN migration pact.
Number of days Belgium had no federal government after the 2010 elections
Mr Michel had appealed for a “coalition of goodwill” in parliament to see his government through to the May vote, but statements from opposition leaders led him to conclude that this was impossible.
“I have understood that my appeal has failed to convince,” he told MPs in a brief closing statement before picking up his briefcase and heading to the royal palace. “I have to respect and take note of this situation. I take the decision to resign and my intention is to go to the king immediately.”
His resignation has raised fears of a repeat of the paralysis that left Belgium without a federal government for a record-breaking 541 days after elections in 2010.
Political dealmaking in the linguistically divided country has been complicated by the rise of the N-VA, the most popular party in Dutch-speaking Flanders but one committed to the eventual break-up of Belgium.
In a controversial move, Mr Michel teamed up with the N-VA after elections in 2014, forming a coalition that also included Dutch-speaking liberals and conservatives. The move was heavily criticised by opposition parties not least because it meant that Mr Michel’s liberal MR party would be the only French-speaking force in government.
Mr Michel argued that the move was a bold step that would deliver strong government.
Political opponents have put the N-VA’s departure down to its mixed showing in local elections in October and the party’s desire to position itself ahead of the May vote.
Echoing antipathy to the UN migration pact in rightwing parties elsewhere in the EU, the N-VA argued that the accord would hand rights to migrants in way that violated Belgium’s sovereignty.
Opponents fear the non-binding pact, which contains provisions to make legal migration easier and to toughen anti-migrant hate crimes, could pave the way for law changes at a national level. The European Commission and others insist this is not the case.
After the N-VA walked out of the government, opposition parties railed against Mr Michel’s refusal to seek a formal confidence vote for his minority administration and expressed fears about the continued influence of the nationalists over his agenda given their strength in parliament.
It also became clear that the administration would struggle to pass a budget.
Get alerts on Belgium when a new story is published