The fall of the government isn’t about migration but party politics.
To see how post-truth politics work, look to Belgium, a country that once went almost two years without a government. Prime Minister Charles Michel’s coalition has fallen because it signed a toothless United Nations agreement that has become a cause celebre for anti-immigrant politicians.
The document is the “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration,” signed at a summit in Morocco this month. The U.S. and a number of other countries, most of them in central and eastern Europe, have refused to sign.
Right-wing parties have opposed the pact, making inaccurate claims about it. They suggest it would make criticism of migration illegal, force countries to recognize all migrants as refugees, and impugn their sovereignty by imposing uniform migration policies. None of this is true: The UN simply wants nation states to be nice to migrants and makes some suggestions about how to do that without requiring any specific action. The document isn’t even binding under international law.
Yet in Belgium, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) – the Flemish nationalist party led by Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever – has been adamant the government shouldn’t sign. It has dubbed the Michel cabinet, of which it was part, the “Marrakech government.”
Theo Francken, the N-VA’s Twitter star and the migration minister in the Michel cabinet, declared his party wanted “nothing to do with it” because it was “way too pro-migration.” He also alleged European courts might start issuing rulings based on the pact – a claim for which there is no supporting evidence. Last weekend, protests in Brussels against the pact turned violent.
Belgium, it must be said, doesn’t have a happy history with immigration. Once a cruel, even genocidal, colonial power, it hasn’t welcomed migrants and its record of integration has been poor.
Out of a population of 12 million people, three million have a migrant background – with about half of the latter coming from other European Union member states. Those that come from other countries face significant hardship: 60 percent of non-EU immigrants are in the lowest income bracket, half live in poor housing conditions, and 70 percent of women are unemployed.
Correcting decades of policy failure is a much tougher proposition than letting fewer people in, so N-VA has focused on demanding “orderly immigration.”
Yet the end of the coalition isn’t so much about migration as about party politics.
The Michel government was an uneasy alliance of his francophone Reformist Movement and three Flemish parties, including the N-VA, which wouldn’t normally work with a Walloon party like Michel’s. Contrary to expectations of an early crisis, the cabinet has endured, presiding over steady economic growth, tax cuts, falling unemployment and shrinking deficits. The N-VA – in particular finance Minister Johan Van Overtveldt – contributed positively to this solid performance.
But the party never wanted to be wedded to Michel’s coalition for ever. Being part of it has hurt its popularity: After winning the support of 32.4 percent of voters in Flanders in the 2014 election, its share has fallen to about 28 percent in the opinion polls.
With the Reformist Movement having lost ground in Wallonia and Brussels to the Socialists and the Greens, N-VA politicians appeared to feel the time was right to quit the cabinet (which Michel will likely continue to run in a caretaker capacity until the next scheduled election in May) and campaign as an opposition force.
The migration pact was a convenient pretext. Most nationalist voters in any country simply don’t want any global deals on the issue. They’re not looking for detailed policy either. That makes it easy to use the pact as a rallying point, as right-wingers have done elsewhere. It’s just that Belgium’s government was fragile enough and ripe enough for a falling-out for these efforts to trigger a political crisis.
If the N-VA does much better in the next election thanks to its stand on the pact, the next Belgian coalition government, running a fractious country at the heart of the EU, could well turn out to be a friend of the nationalist governments of eastern Europe instead of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels. That wouldn’t be a pretty sight.