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Dispute over UN migration pact fractures Belgian government

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, is greeted by Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel prior to a meeting in Brussels, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Brussels to attend a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium’s center-right government is fighting for its survival this week after the largest coalition party broke away from its three partners and said it would not back a global U.N.-backed migration pact.

The right-wing N-VA party started a social media campaign against the migration pact Tuesday, more than two months after Prime Minister Charles Michel pledged he would sign the pact for Belgium at a meeting next week in Marrakech, Morocco.

Instead of a coalition breakup, Michel announced late Tuesday he would take the issue to parliament for vote in the days to come.

“I want parliament to have its say,” Michel said, staving off an immediate collapse of the government that has been in power for three years. “I have the intention to go to Marrakech and let the position of the parliament be known.”

Michel’s statement came at the end of a hectic day dominated by an anti-pact social media campaign by the N-VA, of the biggest coalition partner.

The in-your-face campaign featured pictures of Muslim women with their faces covered and stated the U.N. pact focused on enabling migrants to retain the cultural practices of their homelands.

The party quickly withdrew the materials after the campaign received widespread criticism.

“We made an error,” N-VA leader Bart De Wever told VRT network.

De Wever apologized for the pictures of women wearing face-covering niqab in western Europe, but immediately added “these pictures are not fake. You can take pictures like this every day in Brussels. It is the stark reality.”

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel pledged at United Nations headquarters in September that he would go to a meeting in Marrakech, Morocco where the U.N.’s Global Compact Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is to be signed next week.

Amid the N-VA upheaval, a Cabinet meeting was canceled Tuesday afternoon and Michel resumed consultations with vice-premiers looking for a way out of the crisis.

Remarking on the party’s withdrawn campaign, Christian Democrat Vice Premier Kris Peeters said: “I only have one word for this — indecent.”

Even with the parliamentary vote, the options for ensuring the government’s survival were slimming down.

The United Nations says the compact will promote safe and orderly migration and reduce human smuggling and trafficking.

The N-VA said it would force Belgium into making immigration concessions. “In our democracy, we decide. The sovereignty is with the people,” the party said in a statement.

Many experts said the accord is non-binding, but the N-VA said it still went too far and would give even migrants who were in Belgium illegally many additional rights.

The U.N. compact was finalized in July with only the U.S. staying out. Several European nations have since pulled out of signing the accord during the Dec. 10-11 conference in Morocco.

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