If there would be a European competition for the least stable government, it would be a very close run. The Belgian government made a move bringing it back to the front of this competition: in early December the ‘Michel 1’ government fell but was quickly replaced by a minority ‘Michel 2’ government that, however, lasted only 10 days.
General elections are scheduled to take place in May in 2019, together with elections for regional and the European Parliament. The King, who under the constitution plays a significant role in the formation of governments, is currently considering Michel’s resignation as Prime Minister. It is most probable that, after a while, a caretaker administration will be formed to run the government until after May’s elections.
As mentioned in an earlier article (see: http://socialistworld.net/index.php/international/europe/belgium/10024-belgium-government-in-trouble-after-local-elections), all the right-wing parties in the coalition government lost in the local elections in October 2018. The French-speaking liberal party, MR, of Prime Minister Charles Michel did badly and opinion polls since the elections suggest a further loss for what is the only French-speaking party in the federal government. Right-wing majorities in the Walloon and Brussels regions after the upcoming elections in May seem to be completely excluded. In the Flemish region, all three government parties lost compared to the general elections of 2014. As we said in our immediate reaction on the council elections, this has weakened the federal government.
As a result, the Belgian government crashed. The renewed growth of the far right Vlaams Belang in the Flemish region and the impact of the Austrian opposition to the UN Migration Pact, discussed earlier this month in Marrakesh (Morocco), made it impossible for the right wing Flemish nationalist N-VA to continue its earlier position of accepting the Migration Pact. Already in the local elections, the N-VA did all it could to put attention on issues like migration and refugees, as it took a more openly racist course. Yet PM Charles Michel could not just vote against or abstain on the Migration Pact as this would strengthen his image as a lapdog of the N-VA. Furthermore, it is obvious that part of the success of the green party Ecole in Brussels – now competing with the MR to become the biggest party in the capital – is linked to a broad feeling of solidarity with refugees and opposition to the racist propaganda and policies of the N-VA.
It is clear that the N-VA would not risk a governmental crisis on social issues. Asylum and migration give an opportunity to focus public debate on division instead of wages and pensions. No real attempt was made to de-escalate the conflict on the non-binding and very vague Migration Pact. For over a week, the only discussion seemed to be who would get the blame for the final crash. Prime Minister Michel announced he would go to Marrakesh to support the pact and got a big majority in parliament for this position. The N-VA, however, announced that this meant that they were pushed out of the government, leaving the PM with only 52 seats in parliament where 76 are necessary for a majority. The ‘Michel 2’ government was formed on 9 December, but from the start, the main discussion was when it would fall. The N-VA announced it was not prepared to support even the measures or the budget it negotiated if the government adds other measures which are not agreed by the N-VA. In the media, a former minister, Jan Jambon (N-VA), declared his party would only support Michel 2 in parliament if the prime minister was prepared to be a puppet of N-VA. Without support from N-VA or any other opposition party, the ‘Michel 2’ government was stillborn from the start.
The N-VA has put all attention on the issue of migration. This has an impact on mass consciousness, albeit in different ways. While especially in Brussels there is a widespread and active opposition against racism, in Flanders there is a broader and growing acceptance of elements of racism. This is even present among workers who, at the same time, are open to participating in trade union actions for wages and pensions. After years of austerity, and given the lack of organised response to racism, this presence of racism and/or fear of new refugees is not a big surprise. The N-VA needs this sentiment to maintain its position as the largest Flemish party. By strengthening racist elements it does open the way for a return of the far-right Vlaams Belang. At the beginning of this decade, we argued against those anti-racists who said that at least the N-VA had done what we had not been able to: stopping the Vlaams Belang. Unfortunately, we were correct: the growing dependency of N-VA on racist propaganda has led to a return of the Vlaams Belang and other far-right groupings, including neo-Nazis.
In September, a TV-documentary exposed a group of fascist students, including students active in the N-VA (see: http://www.socialistworld.net/index.php/international/europe/belgium/9959-belgium-tv-documentary-exposing-fascists-provokes-new-youth-protests). This grouping, Schild en Vrienden, was put in a very defensive position because of the anti-fascist protests. The N-VA-campaign against the Migration Pact was used by this group to make its return, supported by the Vlaams Belang and others. It announced a ‘March against Marrakesh’. This got widespread attention, was first banned by the local authorities in Brussels but after a court-procedure it finally got permission to demonstrate in front of the European Parliament on Sunday 16 October. This far-right demonstration attracted 5,500 people, according to the police. While this is far less than any serious trade union mobilisation, it is a stark warning for the workers’ movement as this was the biggest far-right public protest in Brussels in decades. The counter demonstration was hastily organised with 2,000 present, including members of the CWI.
Yellow vest sentiment
This does not mean that migration is the only theme of discussion. A trade union day of action on 14 October became an unexpected success, especially among low paid and flexible workers. In the food-sector, it was the biggest strike since 2005. Even where union officials asked for no pickets to be organised, the strike was sometimes very strong. In some regions, there were roadblocks and concentrations of militants in industrial areas. In Brussels, there was an angry demonstration in front of the building of the bosses’ federation.
The Dutch language public television reported on the day of action about a strong “yellow vest sentiment.” While the official subject for the day of action was the pension reform, the issue of wages became more prominent. The French movement has played a role in this, as does the feeling of being left behind with prices going up, while wages do not follow. In January the trade union leadership and the bosses will start to negotiate a national wage agreement.
Workers’ movement must oppose the return of austerity policies
The trade union leaders should not wait until the next elections to prepare for action. The weakening of the government parties, shown in last October’s local elections, led to the fall of the coalition. The trade unions should use this to go in the offensive. Any weakness on our side is immediately used by the opposite side - we should do the same.
In our leaflet for the day of action on 14 October, we called on the trade unions to organise a national demonstration around an ultimatum for the government to change its course. If the government was not prepared to do this, the national demonstration should be used to set a date and a serious campaign for a general strike. Demands for a minimum wage of 14 euro an hour, substantial wage increases, a minimum pension of 1500 euro, pension at 75% of the last wage instead of 60%, a shorter working week without loss of pay… are in line with the discontent behind the yellow vest protests in France and the support for this protest in Belgium.
The workers' movement has to put its own programme on the agenda. If this is not done, the public debate will be dominated by austerity politicians attacking living standards while blaming refugees for this. We will have to fight to obtain our demands: the 1% richest defend their wealth and position, with all possible means. Our struggle will be strengthened with the perspective of a socialist society to end the capitalist system, leading to the present inequality, misery, poverty, climate change, wars… creating all the problems workers and their families are confronted with.