Thursday

13th May 2021

Flemish separatists win Belgian election

  • Coalition talks are expected to be difficult (Photo: EUobserver)

A Flemish separatist party in favour of splitting the country into French- and Dutch-speaking parts claimed victory in Belgian elections on Sunday (13 June), making it likely that coalition talks will be even more difficult than usual in the divided state.

The nationalist New Flemish Alliance party (N-VA) won 27 of the 150 seats in the lower chamber, beating the French-speaking Socialist Party (PS) in the south by one seat.

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Belgium, home to the EU institutions, is divided into three regions. The richer Dutch-speaking north and the poorer French-speaking south. Brussels, the capital, is the third region. Situated in Flanders, it is officially bilingual.

There is no single national constituency. Instead, political parties stand in the regions and then form a coalition. This has become even more difficult with the advance in separatist sentiment in Flanders, which transfers billions of euros each year to sustain the poorer south.

Tensions between the two language communities have always existed but have been further compounded by a protracted dispute over a voting district in the suburbs of Brussels. The country's top court in 2003 ruled the set-up - which allows French-speakers to vote for Francophone parties even though they are living in Flanders - as unconstitutional.

Flemish parties want the electoral system to be changed but Walloons believe this is just a guise to devolve more powers to the regions, eventually breaking up the state.

Referring to the "tsunami" win by Bart de Wever's N-VA, Francophone daily Le Soir says the victory could undermine the foundations of the Belgian state.

Both Mr de Wever and Elio di Rupo, of the Socialists, made some conciliatory noises after the results became clear, with the Fleming speaking of building bridges and his French-speaking counterpart of talking of "listening to the votes made by Flemish voters." However, both also made it clear there are red lines which neither side will cross.

The two greatest problems facing any new government is reform of the state and dealing with the country's economic problems.

But a coalition has to be formed first. After the last elections in 2007, almost 300 days passed before a government was established.

EU presidency

This time round, the political machinations of the 10-million strong country are more under the international spotlight than usual.

Belgium is due to take over the six-month EU presidency on 1 July. And while the rotating presidency has been reduced under the new EU rulebook in place since 1 December, it remains responsible for driving forward the internal machinery of the EU.

Presenting the country's plan for the presidency on Friday (11 June), ambassador to the EU Jean De Ruyt said the main work would be focussed on "managing the EU reaction to the (economic) crisis." He indicated most of the effort will put towards relations with the European Parliament, which has a beefed up legislative role since December. The co-decision process is very "time-consuming" for the presidency, he noted.

But politicians and diplomats suggest that even if country itself it is in political chaos, the presidency is unlikely to be too affected.

Former Belgian prime minister and now MEP Guy Verhofstadt recently noted that the political situation "doesn't matter" because there is unanimity on EU affairs across the political spectrum.

Meanwhile, a diplomat from a large member state said Belgium has "extremely good and experienced officials. [The] quality of their officialdom will bring them through."

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