25 April 2019

On Sunday 26 May, Belgium will not only be holding European Parliament (EP) elections but also federal elections for the lower house of the national parliament, and for the parliaments of the so-called “federated entities” – regional and community assemblies that are co-sovereign with the federal level. The complex structure of the Belgian system requires permanent coordination, but can also cause political gridlock.

The European Parliament elections will reflect Belgium’s splintered political landscape

A relatively small country, Belgium only elects 21 MEPs. Belgian political parties are not only divided along ideological but also along linguistic-cultural lines. There are two liberal parties, for example: one for the Dutch-speaking North (Flanders) and one for the French-speaking South of the country (Wallonia), with both parties active in the bi-lingual capital of Brussels. It is fair to say the country really has two political classes – a Dutch-speaking and a French-speaking one.

As a result of these linguistic differences, the country sends MEPs from a plethora of different parties to the European Parliament. Politico currently forecasts that 12 different parties will win seats:

  • Flemish parties:
    • New Flemish Alliance (ECR): 4 seats
    • Flemish Christian Democrats (EPP): 2 seats
    • Flemish Greens (G/EFA): 2 seats
    • Flemish Liberals and Democrats (ALDE): 2 seats
    • Flemish Social Democrats (S&D): 1 seat
    • Flemish Interest (ENF): 1 seat
  • Francophone parties:
    • Francophone Socialists (S&D): 2 seats
    • Francophone Greens (G/EFA): 2 seats
    • Francophone Reformist Movement (ALDE): 2 seats
    • Francophone Workers’ Party (GUE-NGL): 1 seat
    • Francophone Christian Democrats (EPP): 1 seat
  • Other parties:
    • German-speaking Christian Social Party (EPP): 1 seat

Partly because the country hosts the European Council, the European Commission and most other European institutions, it has always been more open than most towards EU integration, with recent polls suggesting 86 percent of the population are in favour of EU membership. But even in Belgium, something has changed in the last decade or so.

The political party forecast to win the highest number of seats, the centre-right Flemish nationalist N-VA, currently sits in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group with the British Conservatives in the European Parliament, and supports a looser, ‘confederal’ EU. Meanwhile, the second most popular political party, the Francophone Socialist Party (PS), has been sending out Eurosceptic signals of a different nature. It has been protesting against European Commission supervision of national budgets, and also attempted to obstruct the EU-Canada trade deal (CETA) and the recent opening of negotiations for a limited EU-US trade deal.

According to opinion polls, the N-VA would obtain between 25 and 30% in Flanders, about the same as 5 years ago, whereas Christian democrats, greens, socialists and liberals are likely to receive between 10 to 17% each, without any major changes compared to 2014.

More interesting than the actual results of the EP vote will be to see whether the N-VA stays in the ECR group in the European Parliament, especially if the British Conservatives are set to depart soon. Parties opposed to regional nationalism, such as the Belgian Christian Democrats and the Spanish Partido Popular, are likely to veto the N-VA entering the leading centre-right European People’s Party (EPP); the party could instead join the liberal ALDE faction.

The personal electoral performance of former Belgian PM and ALDE leader, Guy Verhofstadt, will also be watched closely. Verhofstadt is now one of the most well-known EU politicians – can he repeat his massive personal vote tally of more than 500,000 in 2014? Another question is how Verhofstadt, the rest of ALDE, and French President Emmanuel Macron will relate to one another after the election. The Dutch, German and Scandinavian ALDE parties are wary of Macron aligning with their group, given his support for a Eurozone budget and apparent demands to scrap the name “ALDE” altogether. ALDE is already a broad church, comprising both centre-left EU-federalists and centre-right opponents of a Eurozone transfer union. If N-VA entered the group, it would mean yet more internal ALDE opposition to Macron’s plans. However, given the likely participation of the UK in EP elections, N-VA may well stay in the ECR for now.

The performance of the far-right Vlaams Belang will also be watched, particularly since this will be the first time Belgians have cast a national vote following the devastating Brussels terrorist attacks of 2016.

In the Francophone part of the country, bigger changes are underway. Following corruption scandals, the PS, once the undisputed leading political force, have lost support to the Francophone Greens and the far-left PTB. Like the Vlaams Belang, these insurgent parties will hope to do well in the EP elections, where voters tend to be more likely to opt for radical parties.

 

The federal and regional elections may bring further political gridlock

Just like with the EP elections, Belgium has a system of proportional representation for federal and regional elections. Differences between North and South make it even harder to agree a federal coalition than in other European countries with a “splintered” political landscape.

Political tensions between the language communities in Belgium have always been resolved in a peaceful manner, but in the past this has led to speculation about a possible break-up of the country, especially as it took about six months in 2007 and a year and a half in 2010-11 to agree a federal coalition. In 2014, after five months, a centre-right federal government coalition was formed between the centre-right Flemish nationalist N-VA, the Flemish and Francophone liberals, and the Flemish Christian Democrats.

At the moment, the federal government is in fact a caretaker government lacking a majority in Parliament, following the N-VA’s exit from the coalition in December 2018, when the party refused to continue to back the government over its support for the “Global Compact for Migration.” This followed the example of the Austrian government’s opposition to the migration compact, perhaps indicating how national politics in EU member states is becoming more “European.”

There are broadly 3 potential outcomes of the federal elections:

Scenario 1: A second centre-right government including the N-VA

Unlike the Vlaams Belang, the Flemish nationalist N-VA does not demand an immediate split-up of Belgium. Instead, it prefers to turn Belgium into a confederation first. It has recently said it wants to secure the post of Prime Minister if there is a majority for another centre-right coalition. Between 2014 and 2019, that job was given to Francophone liberal Charles Michel, in return for being the only Francophone party to join the coalition.

Although Belgian prime ministers are constrained by their coalition partners and by regional governments, they also retain considerable personal leeway. Charles Michel has been taking a strongly integrationist stance, often aligning himself with French President Macron. In contrast, the N-VA candidate to become Prime Minister, former Interior Minister Jan Jambon, would most likely try to bring Belgium closer to the camp of Dutch PM Mark Rutte and his so-called “Hanseatic” cooperation league of Northern EU member states more sympathetic to free trade, which also includes Ireland and the Scandinavian and Baltic countries. So far, Belgium has only rarely allied with the Hanseatic League.

As mentioned, the success of the Greens and the PTB in French-speaking Belgium may complicate matters, as considerable losses are expected for PM Charles Michel’s governing Francophone liberals.

Scenario 2: A “confederal” government, reflecting the majorities in the regions, accompanied with major institutional negotiations

The N-VA has pledged that if there is no majority for a second centre-right coalition, it will only enter a government if Belgium is turned into a “confederation.” This is by no means impossible – the leader of the Francophone socialists, former PM Elio Di Rupo, has said the current arrangements on how much money is attributed to either the federal and decentralized policy levels should be renegotiated.

It is entirely possible that coalitions at regional government level will be formed relatively quickly. If after long negotiations no federal coalition would appear possible, these regional governments would then attempt to negotiate a new Belgian settlement, which the N-VA would try to steer towards confederalism.

Any further decentralisation of powers to the regions will be complicated by the question of whether it will need to be accompanied with additional money for the federated entities, which are widely seen as overfunded.

Although the Flemish N-VA are currently the driving force in support of confederalism, the idea has traditionally been supported in Wallonia too, arising from fears that the current settlement might allow the Flemish to exploit their numerical majority. Former PM and French-speaking socialist party leader Elio Di Rupo expressed support for confederalism in his maiden speech as an MP in 1988, while Belgium’s only EU Commission President ever, Francophone liberal Jean Rey, once was a proponent of the idea as well, back in 1947.

Scenario 3: A federal government without the N-VA

However, as the N-VA is unlikely to secure more than 30 percent of the Flemish vote, other Flemish parties may attempt to form a government without them, perhaps taking the Greens on board, hoping that this may make any upcoming negotiation with the Francophone parties easier. It will be politically difficult to exclude N-VA from the Flemish government, however – in Flanders, polls suggest it will win twice as many votes as the second-placed party.

With so many permutations, relatively small differences in the number of parliamentary seats may determine whether Belgium is headed for major institutional negotiations or for five more years of “business as usual.”

 

What do the polls for national elections say?

Seats projections based on opinion polls and the results in provincial elections last autumn currently suggest three potential coalitions:

  • Scenario 1: N-VA + two Christian Democrat parties (the Flemish CD&V and the Francophone cdH) and two Liberal parties (the Flemish Open VLD, and Prime Minister Charles Michel’s Francophone MR). This would involve the cdH, currently an opposition party, supporting the coalition that was in charge between 2014 and 2018. In this scenario, the N-VA would once again drop demands for more decentralisation in return for competitiveness reforms. February’s polling would give this coalition 73 seats in the Lower House.
  • Scenario 2: N-VA + the two socialist parties (the Flemish sp.a, and the Francophone PS) and the two liberal parties (Open VLD, MR). This would reflect the likely majorities in regional governments, but would only be feasible if combined with major institutional negotiations. February’s polling would give this coalition 81 seats in the Lower House.
  • Scenario 3: The socialists (sp.a and PS) and the two Green parties (the Flemish Groen, and the Francophone Ecolo), supplemented with either the liberals (Open VLD and MR) or the Christian Democrat parties (CD&V and cdH). With the N-VA outside the government, major institutional negotiations would not be required. February’s polling would give a socialist-Green-liberal coalition 82 seats, and a socialist-Green-Christian Democrat coalition 75 seats.

 

In the context of Brexit and slowing Eurozone growth, another Belgian deadlock would be poorly timed

In sum, another Belgian institutional deadlock should not be ruled out. Although the country’s institutional structure hasn’t been functioning smoothly to date, a deadlock would be ill-timed, with growth in the Eurozone economy slowing. On top of that, there is the underlying possibility of a No Deal Brexit. Belgium’s central bank estimates that No Deal could cause up to 40,000 job losses in Belgium, and the country is not sufficiently prepared for such a scenario. Belgian liberal Deputy PM Alexander De Croo is aware of this risk, having stated, “I prefer the uncertainty that we have now over the certainty of chaos… a hard Brexit is guaranteed chaos.” Therefore, given the context of Brexit and a slowing economy, Flemish and Francophone parties alike may be inclined towards yet another Belgian fudge.