Who is Charles Michel, Belgium’s new PM?

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is a political heavyweight, with a reputation as a capable partner who rarely exhibits the bickering or fractiousness that besets so many other centre-right parties. Tuesday marked his third…

Who is Charles Michel, Belgium's new PM?

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is a political heavyweight, with a reputation as a capable partner who rarely exhibits the bickering or fractiousness that besets so many other centre-right parties.

Tuesday marked his third day in an official capacity as the new Belgian prime minister, and the 59-year-old was put through his paces in a special series of media interviews.

Belgian media suggests that French Premier Edouard Philippe could not hide his annoyance at Mr Michel’s use of translation – a form of abbreviation which he took issue with – when talking about a European Union budget deal with the countries of the south of the European Union, Italy, Greece and Cyprus.

The story related to the rest of the EU and their financial commitments to the poorer north of the Union.

Mr Michel, in turn, suggested that Mr Philippe would be happy to hear a translation of his interview.

Mr Michel is known for a strong line on Europe and its role in the affairs of government, not least of all when he said the day after being elected that the “Tunisia option” – which would mean European jobs for unemployed North Africans – was not the “prospect” – as the news reports suggested – “we urgently need.”

Why Britain’s unity must hold

The France-Belgium relationship – despite the antipathy of Mr Michel’s conservative party to the European project of the centre-right and Mr Philippe’s own socially liberal agenda – has a special status in Belgian politics.

That is because of their shared links in the past, and in particular because of the foreign policy entanglements France and Belgium have had, particularly in the aftermath of the two world wars.

The tussle about how to deal with the ongoing immigration to Europe of North Africans following the Arab Spring has complicated what is likely to be a difficult election campaign in French-speaking Belgium.

The European negotiations between France and Italy, a country closely integrated into Europe, look likely to result in between 5,000 and 10,000 jobs being created in sectors like catering.

That is, of course, good news for two French-speaking Belgian cities whose demands for investment have been opposed by Mr Michel and his Belgian Union (ultimately called the Liberal Party) government.

In last year’s snap election, the Liberal party captured 29 seats, but was defeated, as usual, by the Socialists.

The Liberals split from the Popular Party in 2015, replacing it as the (mainstream) centre-right party.

The Liberals are split on how to deal with the French-speaking local challenges, even as Mr Michel and Mr Philippe work on agreements on critical issues.

Mr Michel has moved on to talks with the leftist groups on the French-speaking side.

He is yet to decide how to deal with the rural challenge of an exodus of people from the countryside to the cities, which happened under his predecessor (who went to investigate the phenomenon).

He needs to confront the issue – a much more difficult one for the Socialists to resolve – as the Socialists – who hold a two-seat majority in the lower house, the Senate – hold elections this summer.

Mr Michel also knows that the liberals stand little chance in the Senate elections, but they could win re-election in the lower house, and form a coalition government with the right-wing conservatives.

So far, so bad. Except that, in Belgium, the (mainstream) centre-right is also against the idea of having a Grand Coalition, which is known as a Grand Coalition in the French-speaking media.

In the upper house the party leaders have been discussing the matter, but (for the present) they have decided not to go ahead.

That would mean talks on forming a new government – as in 2014 – would last several weeks.

So there is still some room for a compromise to be found between Mr Michel and his Belgian Union and the Socialists, but even a new majority in the lower house looks like a big ask for Mr Michel, given his party’s support of the (mainstream) Grand Coalition in 2014.

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