March 15, 2020 / 10:36 AM / 14 days ago

Belgium inches towards emergency government to tackle virus

Sophie Wilmes, recently nominated as the first female prime minister of Belgium, attends a session at the Belgian Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 31, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Files

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Six Belgian parties inched towards forming a national government on Sunday as the coronavirus crisis revived months of stalled talks in the linguistically and politically divided country.

Belgium has been run by a caretaker administration with limited powers for more than a year and a May election failed to resolve the standoff.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes has ordered the closure of schools, cafes, sports and cultural centres to slow the virus’s spread, but the administration cannot take steps such as launching new budgetary measures that are likely to be required to shore up the euro zone’s sixth largest economy.

Bart De Wever, leader of the centre-right N-VA, the largest party in Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, called on Saturday for the creation of an emergency government, which would be in power for a year and focus on the coronavirus and its aftermath.

The centre-left Socialists (PS), the largest party in the French-speaking south of Belgium, agreed that it was time to set aside political differences during the crisis.

They and four other parties met on Saturday until the early hours of Sunday, with individual party meetings set for Sunday.

But the parties are still divided over who will lead an emergency government.

De Wever has put himself forward as prime minister, but the PS said it would be irresponsible “to change captain in the middle of a storm”, preferring to stick with Wilmes, a French-speaking liberal.

Belgium set a world record of 18 months to form a government after parliamentary elections in 2010 and, until the coronavirus struck, could have been on course to beat that due to differences between the two largest parties, the PS and separatist N-VA.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Edmund Blair

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