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Belgian government given emergency powers to tackle virus

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium’s caretaker government received emergency powers to tackle the coronavirus crisis on Sunday after opposition parties gave it their backing after months of stalled talks in the linguistically and politically divided country.

FILE PHOTO: Belgium's Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes holds a news conference after a cabinet meeting to discuss measures related to the coronavirus outbreak in Brussels, Belgium March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

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 it cannot currently 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.

However, after that idea was rejected by the centre-left Socialists (PS), the largest party in the French-speaking south of Belgium, the two biggest parties and five others agreed to support the existing administration as a minority government for up to six months.

Ten parties, including the three in government, are expected to back the plan in parliament next week. The government would then have powers to carry out emergency measures, without constantly having to put them to parliamentary votes.

Wilmes’ government will be given an initial three months, with a further extension of three months then possible.

“It is an emergency government with a limited programme for a limited time,” Patrick Dewael, the president of Belgium’s lower house of parliament told a news conference.

De Wever had put himself forward as prime minister, but the PS said it would have been 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