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Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes attends a news conference in Brussels. Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes attends a news conference following a meeting of the National Security Council, in Brussels, July 27, 2020 (pool photo by Francois Lenoir via AP).

COVID-19 Is Pushing Belgium’s Messy Federal System to Its Limits

Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020

BRUSSELS—In their responses to the coronavirus pandemic, some countries have channeled greater powers to their central governments in order to curb the virus’s spread, while others have left their states or regions to fend for themselves. The divergent responses have sparked debates in many countries about federalism and the appropriate role of the state.

Here in Belgium, a highly federalized nation whose main political parties have been unable to form a working coalition for more than a year, Parliament approved temporary expanded powers to the caretaker government to manage the coronavirus crisis. On the surface, this seemed like a surprisingly constructive move for the small European country, which has a history of divisive regional politics. Some Flemish party leaders, who have long advocated greater regional autonomy, have even suggested the pandemic creates the potential for more cooperation at the country’s federal level. A closer look, however, shows that Belgium’s divisions are as deep as ever—and that COVID-19 may have only exacerbated them. ...

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