The result of Belgium’s federal elections confirms what her EU partners had feared: there will be no new government in place by 1 July, when the country takes over the six-month presidency of the EU’s Council of Ministers.
Diplomats from other EU countries fear that Belgium’s Council presidency may get little attention while her political leaders are preoccupied with the formation of a new coalition government.
Belgian diplomats have assured other member states that caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme and his cabinet will stay on and guide the presidency until a new government is formed, even though their political powers will be limited.
The result of the election was actually less ambiguous than many observers had feared. Sunday’s result was so clear cut (by Belgian standards) in both Flanders and Wallonia that there is widespread agreement on who should take the lead in trying to form a government: the Flemish nationalist N-VA and the socialists.
Ther big question is whether those two winners – from opposite sides of the political spectrum and either side of the regional divide – can find common ground.
De Wever said this week in an interview with Belgian media: “We live in a land with different democracies, different public opinions, different media. And the one half votes left and the other half votes centre-right.”
The N-VA, which advocates devolving greater powers from the federal government to the regional governments in Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and Francophone Wallonia in the south, polled almost one in three votes in Flanders and will have 27 seats out of the total 150 in the parliament’s lower house (of which 88 seats are for Flanders). In Wallonia, the Parti Socialiste, led by Elio Di Rupo, won 26 seats, having taken an even greater share of the francophone vote. Di Rupo’s hand is further strengthened because the Flemish socialists, the fourth largest in Flanders, polled 13 seats.
The francophone liberals were a distant second behind the socialists and Didier Reynders, the current finance minister, on Monday (14 June) announced that he would be stepping down as liberal party leader once a new government was formed. On the Flemish side, the liberals also polled badly, behind the N-VA and the Christian Democrats and with the same number of seats as the socialists.
Although there is clarity about who must be in the government, there is less certainty about what the new government’s programme might be.
The extent of the N-VA’s victory means that further constitutional reform will be seen as a sine qua non, with the N-VA seeking to devolve more power from the federal government to the regional governments.
So the question is whether and how quickly De Wever and Di Rupo can agree on constitutional changes. The N-VA and the socialists will need to get the Christian Democrats on board in order to reach the two-thirds majority needed to make such changes, perhaps with the addition of the Greens.
De Wever said he aims to “build bridges” with other parties to form a stable coalition. He has said that he wants to agree a new government by 1 September. “We want to work as quickly as possible to create structures that work,” he said.
Negotiations between the parties started on Monday.
Di Rupo – like the leaders of most other parties – has said he is open to negotiate with the N-VA, and De Wever has indicated that he could let Di Rupo become prime minister in exchange for guarantees of constitutional reforms. Di Rupo would be Belgium’s first Francophone prime minister since 1974.
On the eve of the election, Jean de Ruyt, Belgium’s permanent representative to the EU, played down the potential consequences of difficult coalition negotiations, though he told an audience in Brussels on Friday (11 June) that Belgium would not launch any ambitious new initiatives during its six-month Council presidency.
It would, instead, work closely with the European Commission and the European Parliament on existing dossiers, such as legislation on reform of supervision of the financial markets, and would “support” the work of Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council.
While the rotating presidency sets the agenda for Council meetings, including the monthly meetings of finance ministers, the European Council’s president is meant to set the strategic direction of the EU.