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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'.

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June 07, 2019

Message from Peterborough

Labour won the Peterborough by-election by the thinest of margins - a few hundred votes - followed closely by the Brexit Party. The Tories were in a distant third place. The result will serve as a useful reminder for the Tories of the Brexit party’s destructive potential. Labour won the seat despite a loss of 16pp compared to the previous election. Farage managed to split the conservative wing into two, thus handing Labour what would otherwise have been an easy win for the Tories given the circumstances in which the by-election took place. Forget all the complacent talk about Farage never having won a seat for himself at a general election. This totally misses the point of what is happening in British politics right now. Even if the Brexit Party were only able to secure a small number of seats, it would still have the potential to wipe out the Tories. First-past-the-post systems leverage small political swings into huge re-distributions of seats.

The by-election will serve as yet another reminder to the Tories that they are facing a straight trade-off between political extinction and a Halloween Brexit. The UK’s political class spent the long hours ahead of the Peterborough results discussing the mechanics of a no-deal Brexit, concluding that it is not possible or realistic for a PM to prorogue parliament - the theoretical ability to suspend the House of Commons in late October. We think the main effect of this debate has been to isolate Dominic Raab, the most extreme of the pro-Brexit candidates. Moderate Tories now support Boris Johnson - just savour this statement for a moment. The contest is his to lose.

There are two scenarios that could lead to new elections. The first is a no-confidence vote that Labour said it will deliver when the new government is installed. The second would be a decision by Johnson to call elections - subject to the usual parliamentary procedures - to gain a majority for his own Brexit strategy. 

For the moment Johnson has positioned himself in the right spot: an absolute commitment to the Oct 31 leaving date, together with a willingness to compromise on an agreement. There exists no viable strategy for the Tories away from this finely calibrated line.

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June 07, 2019

The decline of the grand coalition is accelerating

We promise not to give you a daily account of German opinion polls, but the current shifts are extraordinary. Our prediction that the grand coalition would be a disaster for both SPD and CDU/CSU has over-fulfilled itself. Over the weekend, an Insa opinion poll put the Greens ahead of the CDU/CSU for the first time. Insa is a polling organisation that registers shifts faster than others, but sometimes overdoes it. Last night, Tagesschau reported the much more stable ARD-Deutschlandtrend, the grand-daddy of German opinion polling, which came to an even more dramatic conclusion. Not only are the Greens ahead of CDU/CSU. The AfD is ahead of the SPD, too. Both coalition partners are at their lowest-ever ratings, polling a joint 37%. 

But perhaps the two most interesting parts are not the headline numbers but the answer to two other questions: do the parties have answers for the future? The Greens score close to their overall poll rating, while the CDU/CSU’s number is 12% and the SPD’s is 2%. The second important part is the collapse in support for AKK, the CDU's new leader.

The reason we are mentioning this poll is that it will increase the pressure for an early end of the grand coalition. The SPD has no leadership at the moment, and seems to be in no hurry to get one. But neither has the CDU. The fall in the CDU/CSU rating is also a reflection of AKK's standing. If you contrast the wooden CDU leader with the professional team in charge of the Green Party, there is simply no competition. Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, the joint Green leaders, have managed to turn a relative small party with stable support into a Volkspartei within two years. The strategic question for the coalition partners will be whether they are better off pulling the plug now, or waiting. Neither has a winning strategy in place right now, which tells us that they might be waiting. But the longer they wait, the worse it will get. 

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