Relief at first coalition agreement
9 October 2007
BRUSSELS – Four months after a general election took Belgium to the brink of constitutional crisis, parties in coalition talks reached their first agreement Tuesday on the issue of immigration.
“What a relief! After 110 days, they took more than a week to reach agreement on one point,” the president of the French-speaking Partie Socialiste, Elio di Rupo, said ironically.
It was “important to have unequivocal measures, clearly defined, to avoid leaving room for divergent opinions,” the politician tasked with forming the next government, Yves Leterme, told reporters after the talks ended at 3.00 am on Tuesday morning.
The wide-ranging political agreement between the members of the so-called “orange-blue” coalition of conservatives and liberals is aimed at improving both the flexibility and the efficiency of Belgium's immigration policies.
Among its key points is the creation of a single ministry tasked with both immigration and asylum policies – areas which have traditionally been handled by different bureaux.
The agreement also aims to open Belgium to a controlled form of economic migration, with job vacancies for which no Belgian worker could be found first offered to citizens of the European Union, and then to non-EU nationals, the Belga news agency wrote.
That agreement was “very important” for the Flemish-liberal party Open VLD, the party's president, Bart Somers, said after the talks.
But it drew the fire of the socialists, with former vice-premier Laurette Onkelinx saying “rather than putting our unemployed to work, they're going to look for people abroad, reducing the pressure on businesses, especially when it comes to training.”
A further bone of contention is the parties' agreement on the legalisation of illegal immigrants. Under the deal, illegal residents who have a job offer could receive a work permit similar to the US green card – a method which would allow the government to apply a quota system to such migration, Leterme said.
That suggestion does not go far enough, Onkelinx said. “We said a legalisation committee, with magistrates and a clear legal base – there's none of that here at all,” she added.
The agreement also envisages an improvement of asylum procedures and a tightening of the rules on family reunion, with immigrants wanting to bring any family members other than dependent children having to prove that they have sufficient income to support them.
Belgium's political spectrum is divided both along party and along national lines, with Christian democrats, liberals, socialists and greens all represented by separate parties in the Flemish-speaking north and French-speaking south of the country.
After the 10 June elections, a bitter row broke out between the national groups over the balance of power between the regions and the federal state. Tuesday's agreement is the first by parties on any future government programme.