Belgium in limbo, again

Say what you like about the ponderous bureaucracy of the European Union, at least the elections to the European parliament, held two months ago, have produced a result. The new EU prime minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has been confirmed by the parliament and is assembling her government ready to take office in November.

No such luck for the Belgian election, held on the same day. Two months have left Belgians no clearer about the shape of their next government.

Belgium is a constitutional monarchy, but as in most monarchies on the continent the king takes a back seat in the process of choosing a government. He delegates the task of conducting negotiations to an informateur: generally a respected senior politician, often semi-retired.

The idea is that the informateur – in this case two of them, Didier Reynders (a liberal) and Johan Vande Lanotte (a social democrat) – will explore the available options in talks with the political parties and ultimately settle on a new majority coalition. The king can then appoint a formateur, or prime-minister-designate, to actually construct a government and present it to parliament.

The two informateurs were appointed on 30 May, and yesterday they presented their report to the king, saying that discussions were continuing. King Philippe, as expected, asked them to keep trying, and extended their mission until 9 September.

To understand the difficulty of the task, we need to look at the election result. Because most Belgian parties come in two versions, one Dutch-speaking and one French-speaking, this gets a bit complicated.

Twelve parties won seats: two each of social democrats, Christian democrats and Greens; three liberal parties (there’s an extra one based in Brussels); a single, integrated far left party; a Dutch-speaking far right party (the French-speaking one lost its only seat); and the Flemish separatist party, N-VA.

Grouping them together, the totals were as follows:

Group Votes Seats
Far right & separatists 28.0% 43
Christian democrats 12.6% 17
Liberals 18.3% 28
Social democrats 16.2% 29
Greens 12.2% 21
Far left 8.6% 12

On the surface, that looks relatively straightforward. Liberals, social democrats and Greens have a clear majority between them – 78 of the 150 seats – and with a bit of horse-trading should be able to form a coalition, like the one that governs in neighboring Luxembourg. They could even broaden their base by taking in the Christian democrats, who in Belgium are just as centrist as the liberals.

And that’s still what might happen. But there’s a major problem with it, which my table conceals: the two halves of the country voted very differently.

In French-speaking Wallonia and Brussels, in the south, the “mainstream” groups (centre-right, liberals, centre-left and Greens) had an overwhelming majority – 81.4% of the vote and 54 of the 63 seats. But in the north, in Dutch-speaking Flanders, they were the minority, with just 48.3% and 41 seats out of 87.

In the south, the far left garnered 13.5% of the vote and nine seats, while the far right had 3.2% and no seats. But in the north the far right was well ahead, 18.6% to 5.6% and 18 seats to three.

So although a government that excluded the extremes and the N-VA would have a clear majority, it would risk being seen to lack legitimacy in the north, which in turn would further encourage the N-VA’s separatism – a vicious circle.

The informateurs’ solution is to bring the N-VA and the French-speaking Socialists together, and construct a majority around them. The N-VA has been in government before, but it left last year after a dispute over immigration, and its differences with the Socialists run very deep.

The N-VA also proposes to cast the net wider and bring in the far-right Flemish Bloc. None of the mainstream parties, however, will countenance that. And without them, either the centre-left or the Greens are indispensable; unlike last time, N-VA, liberals and centre-right do not command a majority between them.

There’s still a long way to run before Belgium threatens its previous record of time taken to form a government: 18 months in 2010-11. Nonetheless, it’s a good bet that come 9 September the informateurs will be asking for another extension.

2 thoughts on “Belgium in limbo, again

  1. It makes me wonder how long a delay of this kind would have to last before enough pressure built up for the system to be changed. Would two years do it? Three? Four?

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    1. Well yes, you do wonder. It seems that prior to 2007 it generally took a couple of months, which to us is a long time but was apparently regarded as unproblematic. The problems in 2007 and then (more so) 2010-11 were a major national embarrassment, but the thought was that they had been solved by the constitutional reform of 2012, and indeed 2014 proceeded smoothly enough (altho it still took four & a half months). If it goes longer than that this time, no doubt people will start to worry.

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