Belgium’s first female prime minister in 189 years of the country’s history has taken office, after the resignation of Charles Michel who will succeed Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.
Sophie Wilmès, 44, will lead a caretaker government unable to launch fresh policy initiatives while Belgium struggles to form a coalition government more than 100 days after elections were held in May.
The appointment of the French-speaking liberal and former budget minister was immediately attacked by senior figures in the Right-wing Flemish nationalist N-VA, the largest party in Belgium and Mr Michel’s erstwhile coalition partners.
Ms Wilmès said the appointment was a “great honour and responsibility” but admitted the caretaker government did not have “much opportunity to act.” She urged the formation of a new coalition government as soon as possible.
Her call for national unity appears doomed to be ignored after May’s elections exposed deep-seated linguistic and cultural divides that threaten to tear Belgium apart.
Dutch-speaking Flanders is dominated by the N-VA, while the French-speaking region of Wallonia voted for the francophone socialist party. Brussels, Belgium’s other federal region handed the greens a majority, further complicating the chances of forming a federal coalition government.
Belgium famously went 541 days with a caretaker government after the 2010 elections, a world record. Northern Ireland’s Stormont Assembly has not sat for more than 1,000 days but is ineligible for the record as laws can still be passed in Westminster.
Theo Francken, the former N-VA migration minister, said Ms Wilmes was a “rabid francophone” intent on “supporting French-speaking imperialism on the outskirts of Brussels.”
Ms Wilmès, a mother of four married to an Australian, is a fluent Dutch speaker but her position is further weakened by her liberal party losing support in the May elections to become Belgium’s fourth largest party. Her promotion has been called “a poisoned chalice”.
The N-VA walked out of Mr Michel’s four party coalition in December last year after Mr Michel said he would support Belgium signing the UN Migration Pact.
The respected De Standaard newspaper said that the new prime minister was little known in Flanders but described her as charismatic and praised her for speaking good Dutch. Other Flemish commentators have criticised her for not doing more to curb government spending.
Le Soir, the leading French language daily, said her elevation, which caps a rapid rise to the top for the Brussels born former local councillor, was “an elevator to the scaffold.”
Mr Michel will become the new president of the European Council, a role likely to be pivotal in the Brexit process, on December 1.