6th Apr 2020


Is Belgium heading for new elections?

  • Koen Geens, Belgian minister of justice, resigned as royal envoy after giving up on coalition talks (Photo: Council of the EU)

Koen Geens, the Belgian minister of justice, has resigned as royal envoy in government formation talks, pointing to potential new elections.

His departure, on Friday (13 February), came after King Philippe appointed him two weeks ago to try to finally forge a coalition, almost nine months after the last vote in May 2019.

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Geens' appointment ended a previous mission by Georges-Louis Bouchez, the new president of the francophone liberals (MR), and Joachim Coens, the new president of the Flemish christian democrats (CD&V).

They had tried to bridge the differences between the two largest parties on either side of Belgium's language border - the francophone socialists (PS) and the Flemish nationalists (NVA).

But it was not easy, as the PS and the NVA are each other's opposites in many ways.

The PS is one of the most left-wing socialist parties in Europe and favours a stronger Belgium. The NVA is much further to the right of the political spectrum and has, as its ultimate goal, an independent Flanders and the end of Belgium.

Multiple majorities

To further complicate matters, it is a Belgian tradition that a coalition government not only has a majority in the House of Representatives, but also a majority in each language group.

The recent government of former Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, who is now the EU Council president, was an exception.

Michel's MR party was the only francophone one in the ruling coalition.

And a similar problem now lies on the Flemish side, where the political landscape is heavily fragmented.

Excluding the far-right Vlaams Belang, one needs at least three parties to have a majority, if the NVA is to be part of the coalition. Without the NVA, one needs four Flemish parties.

That is why royal envoys have been working so far on two ideas: the so-called Vivaldi coalition and the Purple-Yellow coalition.

The Vivaldi model would contain, on the francophone side, the socialists, liberals, and greens, and on the Flemish side, the socialists, liberals, greens, and the christian-democrats. Four colours - four seasons.

The Purple-Yellow model would have liberals and socialists on both language sides (hence purple) with the NVA (yellow).

But both possibilities remain uncertain.

The problem with the Vivaldi model is that the Flemish christian-democrats (CD&V) do not want to drop the NVA from the coalition, as they fear the NVA more in opposition.

The problem with the Purple-Yellow one is that the PS and the NVA are still each other's opposites.

PS says no

When the king appointed Geens (CD&V) as royal envoy, the expectation was that he would form a Vivaldi coalition, and drop the NVA. But his own party blocked the idea and demanded that the NVA must be in government.

This is why he quickly changed gear and tried to reconcile the PS and the NVA. But he appears to have overestimated the willingness of the PS.

On Friday morning, Paul Magnette, president of the PS said loud and clear that his party would not accept to be in a coalition with the NVA. And that was the end of Geens' mission.

The options are now very limited, if not exhausted. The Flemish christian-democrats could drop their requirement to be married to the NVA and follow the party into government or opposition.

But as all the big shots in the party have said time and again that this will not happen, the chances are low that they will suddenly change their mind.

The 'e' word

And so, nine months of talks and negotiations seem to have led nowhere, which is why the words that no-one wanted to hear have made a come-back to the political conversation in Belgium: new elections.

Most parties are against a new vote, as it would stop them from doing what the country urgently needs.

The current caretaker government of Sophie Wilmès (MR) does not have the powers to tackle the booming deficit of €12bn.

The first duty of the next government will be to control and cut this figure. And the longer they wait, the bigger the task will be.

At the same time, everyone in Belgium knows that new elections will not make government negotiations easier.

In either scenario, the NVA seems to get what it wants: proof that "Belgium doesn't work anymore".

But if new elections do go forward after nine months of gambling without blinking, the main Belgian parties will see what the electorate thinks of them, and it might be devastating.

The last elections already marked a victory for extreme parties on the left and the right side of the political landscape.

New elections might make these parties even stronger and the country even less easy to govern.

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