The time of serenity is definitely over in Belgium. Due to the significant increase in new corona infections, strict measures apply again from Wednesday to the end of August: During this time, each household should be allowed to meet a maximum of five people regularly and without a face mask, purchases can only be done by one person and with an everyday mask and should not take longer than 30 minutes. The “Night Shops”, which are usually open until well after midnight, close at 10 p.m. The number of visitors to public events, which require a mask, is halved to 100, 200 people are allowed to gather in the open air – and everyone who can should go back to the home office.
When Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès introduced the restrictions, she mentioned one goal: a lockdown like in spring must be avoided. All citizens should consider what they could do to “fight the virus and protect loved ones”. Over the past week, an average of 328 new infections per day have been registered in Belgium and 23 people have been hospitalized. The seriousness of the situation is shown by the significant reduction in the so-called contact bubble to five people: until now, it was allowed to meet 15 people every week who were allowed to change after seven days.
A reduction in the size of the bladder was rejected at the weekend, but then the experts raised the alarm. Virologist Mark Van Ranst says: “We only have this one chance to prevent the lockdown.” The Antwerp region is most affected in Flanders. The Netherlands already prohibit “non-essential trips” to the region.
The situation in Antwerp, the port city with 530,000 inhabitants, is critical. Adults are prohibited from doing any contact sports there. Bars and restaurants close at 11 p.m. and everyone over the age of twelve must wear a mask to wear them in busy places. And between 11:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., only those who have to go to work or to the hospital are allowed to go on the street, Mayor Bart De Wever decided.
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“The curfew is primarily symbolic, De Wever wants to show that he has everything under control,” says political scientist Dave Sinardet from the Free University of Brussels. As a politician who profiles himself with “law and order” topics, De Wever implements what he has been promoting for a long time. To prevent nightly meetings, less draconian measures would also be conceivable, Sinardet told SZ: “Above all, he wants to avert damage from the regional economy.”
De Wever will be impressed by the fact that it has a stronger impact than the central government and the other regions, i.e. French-speaking Wallonia and Brussels. Experts complain that the rules were loosened too quickly across the country. There is no tracing app yet. De Wever recently complained on the radio that he was concerned about other Belgian cities: testing there was less frequent and slower than in Antwerp. Protest and the accusation that De Wever only wanted to distract followed promptly.
Prime Minister Wilmès had received special powers of attorney over Corona
Because in Belgium too, the dispute over Corona determines domestic politics – and that is complicated. The country, with a population of 11.5 million, has had no government with a majority in parliament since December 2018 and has been led by the Liberal Wilmès since October. She had received special powers of attorney for Corona until June and has to face a question of trust in September. In the fall, observers say, it could work with a regular government.
This is where Bart De Wever comes in again. He is a key figure in Belgium’s policy, which takes into account the interests of three regions and three language groups. The 49-year-old is the head of the nationalist-separatist party N-VA, which received the most votes in the Flemish-speaking Flanders at the end of May 2019 and, with 25 of the 150 MPs, represents the largest parliamentary group.
A week ago, King Philippe De Wever and Paul Magnette, the head of the Parti Socialiste (PS), asked to take on the role of “formats” and to promote government formation. On the national holiday, July 21, the head of state appealed to the political class not to disappoint the citizens: “The whole country is demanding a decisive and stable government.” The PS had won the election more than 400 days ago in Wallonia and has 20 MPs.
The king wants a majority of around 95 seats, but many actors have to forget their reservations. “The pressure to agree has increased,” says political scientist Sinardet. However, there was more money to be distributed because of the Corona aid package decided at the EU special summit: “In winter it was assumed that the new government would have to increase taxes or cut its own clientele. This is different now.” There are enough topics for a new government: Because of Corona, the economy will collapse by ten percent; a chaos Brexit would hit Belgian companies hard. In an aging society, health is becoming more and more important, almost all cities are designed for cars and close to traffic collapse – including air pollution. One reason for N-VA and PS to pull themselves together differently than in winter could be the growing polarization: the right-wing extremist Vlaams is relevant in surveys in Flanders, while the left-wing populist party PTB / PVDA is growing in Wallonia. And in Brussels? The Greens are the most popular there.