Super Sunday: Belgians vote local, national, and European on same day
Even in a loyal member state like Belgium, criticism of the EU has been on the rise in recent years. But most people - and their political representatives - remain staunchly pro-European
This puts Bart De Wever, the leader of the nationalist Flemish party, the N-VA, which advocates splitting Belgium in two, in something of a pickle. How to be eurosceptic without being too eurosceptic?
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But first things first.
Belgians will vote in the EU elections on 25 May. The day - a Sunday - has been called the “mother of all elections.” Why? Because in addition to voting for the EU assembly, there are direct elections to six national and regional parliaments and one indirect election to the federal senate.
Campaigning for the May elections already started at the end of last year - an indication of the significance of the day.
After 25 May there will be no more elections at the federal and regional level for five years, a rarity in a country with multiple levels of government. So the stakes are high: if you are voted in, you are in until 2019. If not, it means a half decade in the political wilderness.
Whether you are a fan of De Wever’s politics or not - he heads a party that is seen as anti-immigrant and nationalistic - he sets the tone of the political discussion in the northern part of Belgium.
His party wants Belgium to split in two: Flanders, the richer northern part of the country, where 60 percent of the population lives, and Wallonia, the French-speaking poorer part in the south.
The N-VA (new Flemish Alliance) believes that without Wallonia, Flanders would be much richer, more efficient, less corrupt and less old-fashioned.
De Wever, who is also mayor of Antwerp, is seen as the politician who will bring about change.
In Belgium there is no nation-wide voting. Flemish voters can only vote for Flemish politicians and Francophones for French-speaking ones.
De Wever is aiming for at least 30 percent of the Flemish vote to ensure he cannot be excluded when it comes to forming a coalition. His party will probably become the biggest party in Flanders, but given the fragmentation of Belgian politics, De Wever fears being ignored if the party does not scoop one third of the vote. It is a threshold that is seen as ambitious, but possible.
This puts the N-VA in a dilemma, one that will become increasingly apparent as election day approaches.
The party has to be radical enough to please its faithful, but moderate enough to attract new voters. And that goes for both EU and national level.
When it comes to the Belgian elections (federal and regional), the N-VA has to balance the demand for further institutional reform (the party wants to devolve more power to the regional level) and the need for strong socio-economic reform.
Nobody wants to relive the political crisis of a few years ago, when the country was without a government for more than 500 days.
And when it comes to the European elections, the problem is finding the right tone and message on the EU.
The EU dimension will also affect De Wever’s attempts to poach voters from the Vlaams Belang, which is on the hard right and Belgium’s only outright eurosceptic party.
He needs some Vlaams Belang voters in order to achieve his goal of being indispensable when it comes to future government-making.
To complicate matters even more, the person heading the N-VA list is himself a well-known and outspoken critic of the euro. Johan Van Overtveldt is an economist and former editor-in-chief of a financial weekly in which he often argued that the single currency is unsustainable. Today he presents himself as a “eurorealist.”
And the EU parliament
And then - in Belgium the complexity of politics is unending - there’s the matter of the political groups in the EU parliament.
Today the single N-VA deputy in the EU assembly is part of the Greens/European Free Alliance. Besides the Greens, this group consists of small, nationalist parties. The group is mainly left wing, while the N-VA in recent years has clearly moved to the right.
This means N-VA will probably have to leave the group.
Logically, N-VA could team up with the British Conservatives, but they are probably too eurosceptic for the average Flemish voter. And that is why the N-VA remains coy about which EU parliamentary group it will eventually join.
In terms of seats, Belgium is unlikely to become more eurosceptic en bloc. Sure, the “eurorealist” N-VA representation will increase (from possibly one to three MEPs), but the far-right Vlaams Belang is set to lose, going from three MEPs to one.
All other Belgian parties, both Flemish and French speaking, are pro-EU.
Among these, the left-wing parties place emphasis on having “a different Europe.” The social democrats and the greens (in both the north and south of the country) reject the EU’s austerity policy. They say Europe compounded the crisis, with too much focus on slashing spending and not enough on stimulus.
The centre and right-wing parties (Christian Democrats and Liberals) also have points of criticism. However, they do not want less Europe or another Europe, they want more Europe - to better tackle social problems and keep control of the financial sector.
Most prominent in this last group is Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister and candidate for the job of commission president.
In his customary frank style, Verhofstadt is campaigning for the role with a very federalist programme. Although not many in Belgium view the programme as realistic, Verhofstadt remains a popular politician.
Another person to watch is Marianne Thyssen, head of the Flemish Christian Democrat’s list. She has been an MEP for years, has a good reputation and may therefore be the next Belgian commissioner, although Flemish liberal Karel De Gucht, currently EU trade commissioner, wants to stay put.
The decision on the next Belgian commissioner will be made during coalition talks for the next federal government, which means Thyssen has a good chance of ousting him.
Belgian voters will elect 21 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 25 May.