June 07, 2019
Keep looking, gentlemen, said the King
The task to form a Belgian government coalition is turning out to be another extraordinarily difficult process, with some parallels to the infamous 500-day impasse of eight years ago. Didier Reynders and Johan Vande Lanotte, the two informateurs charged by King Philippe of Belgium with exploring the options for a government coalition, have had no success so far. If Vande Lanotte and Reynders fail to come up with the goods, new informateurs would likely be appointed. But we are not there yet.
Reynders warned against complacency yesterday, pointing to the fact that Belgium had now a caretaker minority government that had been toppled months before the election, with a political make up utterly out of synch with any conceivable new ruling coalition. It would not be a good idea for this unstable situation to go on for another 500 days.
The problem is that it might. Brussels and Wallonia have moved to the left, Flanders to the right, and the formation of a federal government might founder on the alliances at regional level. The Flemish N-VA these days sounds almost moderate in comparison to the extremist Vlaams Belang. The VB is a party whose old and young membership is rife with tolerance or worse for Nazi collaborators, and revisionist post-nazi nostalgics are no oddity there. The VB is also seeking to participate in the Flemish government, ending decades of isolation.
Bart De Wever, the N-VA chief, has agreed to hold talks with its far-right rival, and the King has ended decades of boycott by receiving the smooth and youthful VB leader Tom De Grieken into the palace. De Wever, according to Flemish media, is desperate for the talks to founder on some VB outrageousness. De Grieken is equally keen for this not to happen. So the N-VA is playing for time, hoping that a VB backbencher or elder politician will send the party back into the wilderness. Meanwhile, left-wing rhetoric and leftist green politics are enjoying a revival in the south. We do not expect Belgium to fall apart – there is no appetite for Catalan-style turmoil. But neither do we expect a new federal government soon.
Thomas Klau writes: On the face of it, the rise of the far right in Flanders is a bit of a mystery. The region's economy is doing well, and the days when the Flemish had to learn to speak and write French to move up in the world, or serve the needs of snotty Walloons, are unforgotten but over. And yet the discussion about how could this possibly have happened is less lively in Flanders than one might have expected – and this absence itself gives us part of the answer.
'Vlaams Belang leader Tom de Grieken is so nice, good looking and polite; and then Filip Dewinter, the party's elder statesman: his house is immaculate, his garden tidy, he looks like the reliable neighbour many a Flemish citizen would love to give a spare set of house-keys to. Yes, he did say that he would have failed as father if one of his daughters chose a man of colour as the man she wants to marry. But then has he not emphatically denied this was racism, just common-sense concern for his daughter's well-being? After all, marriage is difficult enough anyway, and when there is too much difference, the problems just pile up, who can deny it?'
Genuine outrage over the far-right in Flanders has become, and perhaps always has been, the domain of a minority. The De Griekens and Dewinters, their positions may sound harsh to many even in Flanders, but no matter: mainstream Flanders still considers them part of a hard-working, perennially embattled but proud Flemish 'us'.