7 parties agree on Belgian government led by Liberal De Croo

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Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes takes off her protective mask prior to a press conference following the National Security Council meeting on the COVID-19 outbreak, in Brussels, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Belgium’s prime minister announced Wednesday a relaxation of social-distancing rules as part of a less stringent long-term coronavirus strategy, despite the steady rise of COVID-19 cases in a country already hard-hit by the virus. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Almost 500 days after Belgian parliamentary elections, seven parties from both sides of the linguistic aisle agreed early Wednesday on forming a fully functioning majority government under new Prime Minister Alexander De Croo that will center on dealing with the pandemic and its devastating economic impact.

A final negotiating session that lasted almost 24 hours found agreement on a common budget that could unite the seven parties, consisting of Liberals, Socialists and Greens, divided into separate linguistic entities, and the Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats.

“It is the starting point for a new way of doing politics, with more pragmaticism, cooperation and, especially, more respect,” De Croo said.

Led by De Croo and francophone Socialist Paul Magnette during the last days of negotiations, the parties found money to fund new initiatives like a higher minimum pension and improved public services, while hoping to contain the budgetary hemorrhaging caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The last thing was the question who would become prime minister, and since the government falls just shy of a parliamentary majority in Dutch-speaking Flanders, it was an obvious choice to pick De Croo.

“We did head or tails, and it fell for Alexander and it is an excellent choice,” Magnette said tongue-in-cheek.

Despite his age, the 44-year-old De Croo is already a veteran in Belgian politics and was vice premier in the outgoing government. He held the offices of pensions, development aid and finance over the past decade. He would be the first Dutch-speaking prime minister in nine years.

European Council President Charles Michel, a former Belgian prime minister himself, congratulated De Croo and said that “COVID-19 hit us badly, but I count on you and your government to guide us past this challenge.”

Since the May 26, 2019, elections, Belgium has been led by a caretaker government, and, for the past half year, by a minority coalition with widespread support from the opposition to deal with the pandemic, the last one led by francophone Liberal Wilmes.

The government formation has been so difficult. Beyond the linguistic strife between 6.6 million Flemings and 5 million Francophones that is a given in Belgian politics, the 2019 elections saw major advances by the far right in northern Dutch-speaking Flanders, and by the far left in southern francophone Wallonia.

It made compromise politics, an essential element of Belgian politics, even harder. De Croo acknowledged that “a lot of people are extremely skeptical.”

But he insisted the coronavirus crisis made the traditional fissures outdated. “Together we can do a lot more than alone.” The overwhelming challenge will be to deal with the pandemic, which has hit Belgium especially hard. On Wednesday, the tally for Belgium exceeded 10,000 deaths for the first time.

“A great many people face a tough time — insecurity, school closures, temporary job losses. And so many families have lost loved ones,” he said.

Because the plenary room in the Belgian parliament is too small to ensure social distancing between the 150 members of the House, the legislature will move to the vast rooms of the nearby European Parliament later this week for approval of the government and a first debate on its program.

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