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article imageDesertion over UN migration pact leaves Belgium with minority govt

By Clément ZAMPA (AFP)     Dec 9, 2018 in World

Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel is now at the helm of a minority government after the Flemish nationalist party on Sunday quit the ruling coalition over his support of a UN migration pact widely opposed by anti-immigrant populists.

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the largest of the coalition's four parties, had earlier threatened to leave if Michel backed the accord, which has become a cause celebre for right-wing parties across Europe.

Belgium's King Philippe accepted the resignations of the N-VA's ministers on Sunday after meeting with Michel at the royal palace, according to a statement.

Michel also presented the king with the list of replacements for the departing N-VA ministers in the interior, finance, defence and migration portfolios.

With the departure of the Flemish party, Michel lacks a parliamentary majority with five months to go before legislative elections scheduled for late May.

"I regret that it has come to this," Michel told the RTL-TVI television channel.

Bart De Wever of the Belgium Flemish nationalist party N-VA issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister Ch...
Bart De Wever of the Belgium Flemish nationalist party N-VA issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister Charles Michel over the UN migration pact
THIERRY ROGE, POOL/AFP/File

He said that a "responsible coalition" had been set up and called for "dialogue with parliament", warning of a looming risk of early elections, which he said could "stymie the country for a year".

Addressing a news conference later in the day, Michel said the weakened government's three priorities would be purchasing power, security and climate policy.

Interior minister and N-VA member Jan Jambon had confirmed earlier Sunday that he and the party's other ministers would step down.

"It's clear," he told national broadcaster RTBF, following hours of uncertainty.

The draft UN accord lays down 23 objectives to open up legal migration and better manage a global flow of 250 million people -- more than three percent of the world population.

The pact was approved in July by all 193 member nations except the United States, which backed out last year.

Countries including Italy, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Australia have since rejected it.

- 'It's chaos' -

Belgium's coalition government, in power for four years, has often been riven over the N-VA's anti-migration positions.

Health Minister Maggie De Block, who will also take on the migration portfolio replacing N-VA's Theo Francken, said she would pursue "a new strict but fair" migration policy.

"I am taking on a department in crisis. It's chaos," she said in a statement.

New migration minister Maggie De Block  who is also health minister  says she is taking on a "d...
New migration minister Maggie De Block, who is also health minister, says she is taking on a "department in crisis"
DIRK WAEM, BELGA/AFP

On Saturday night, N-VA leader Bart De Wever warned Michel that the party would leave the coalition if the prime minister flew to a UN conference in Marrakesh on Sunday to endorse the migration pact.

"If we no longer have a voice in this government... there is no point in continuing," De Wever said.

However Michel stood firm, saying he would endorse the pact.

A last-gasp cabinet meeting late Saturday failed to overcome what Michel called a "profound difference" between the parties.

- 'Pact with the devil' -

The non-binding UN accord, which would promote a common global approach to migrant flows, was initially supported by all four parties in Belgium's coalition.

But the N-VA changed its mind in late October.

The crisis had been rumbling for several weeks before bursting into the open on Tuesday when Michel turned to parliament after failing to unite his government behind the pact.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen at an event in Brussels on the weekend hosted by the Belgian V...
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen at an event in Brussels on the weekend hosted by the Belgian Vlaams Belang party
NICOLAS MAETERLINCK, BELGA/AFP/File

The liberal prime minister has steadfastly defended the accord, saying on Sunday that it presented "the opportunity for better European and international cooperation".

On Thursday, a majority of parliament supported the accord, but the N-VA and far-right Vlaams Belang party voted against it.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Steve Bannon, a former advisor to US President Donald Trump, denounced the pact at an event hosted by Vlaams Belang in Brussels on Saturday.

"The country that signs the pact obviously signs a pact with the devil," Le Pen said.

The deal is expected to be ratified at UN headquarters in New York on December 19.

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