Belgium’s muddled politics was great training for Charles Michel


Picture of Julien Tate-Smith
Julien Tate-Smith

Programme Officer at Friends of Europe

As Charles Michel is set to take over the reins of the European Council, many have pointed to his experience in Belgium’s national politics as an invaluable asset. Getting EU leaders to agree is tall order, but Michel is a known deal-maker. As Belgium’s Prime Minister, he defied expectations by leading a coalition which had been earmarked by many as a sure failure after only a couple of months. Nevertheless, as his attention shifts towards a new horizon, questions are being raised as to what will ensue for Belgian politics.

Party politics are never straightforward, but this is an understatement for Belgium. Its proportional representation system has long resulted in frequent head-scratching, often ludicrous scenarios. Back in 2011, Belgium broke the record for going the longest without a government, racking up a massive 589 days. Although the record was broken last year by Northern Ireland – and is still being extended every day – Belgians seem on course to surpass their previous effort.

Two months on from the European elections and almost eight months after the previous government resigned, still no clear idea of who will govern has yet emerged.

Scrolling through an online simulator for coalition-building illustrates the arduous task Belgian MPs currently face. While French-speaking Wallonia primarily voted for the left, its Flemish-speaking counterpart increased its affinity for the right.

Belgium, being a federal State, sees its national parliament as the political meeting point of its communities which, to say the least, have often held differing stances. Nevertheless, these elections have shown an electorate more divided than usual. No single party has obtained more than 17% and reaching a majority would require the top four parties to form a coalition, which is unlikely given their opposing viewpoints and a Far Right party in the mix.

‘A little imagination is all that’s needed’ is a frequently heard expression from optimistic politicians

Forming a government from these diverse groups will undoubtedly require some innovative thinking.

‘A little imagination is all that’s needed’ is a frequently heard expression from optimistic politicians. To their credit, Belgian decision-makers are remarkably adept at negotiating complex coalitions, with governments often comprising at least four parties, and some having even reached the heady heights of eight different groups.

Such a wide coalition might be necessary once again to prevent the Far Right from assuming power. The Vlaams Belang, which calls for an independent and ethnically homogeneous Flanders, has increased its share of the vote to become the third largest party in Parliament. It now holds 18 of the total 150 seats. Some speculate a likely alternative may well be the ‘rainbow coalition’, i.e. a joining of all traditional parties in a bid to keep the extremists out. Others predict that an agreement may be found between the liberal and socialist parties from each Community, but they will have to be joined by others to reach a majority.

Making such predictions is unwise, however, and perhaps even unwelcome. As centrist parties strengthen their cooperation, it is no secret that the electorate across Europe is increasingly attracted to populist parties, thanks in part to a feeling of betrayal by their traditional politicians.

To further complicate matters, some of the leading parties in Belgium have publicly rejected any possibility of working with their opposing counterparts. Reneging on their previous commitments, by trying to form a wide coalition government, will thus require representatives to convince the electorate that no other solution is viable. For such an outcome to be legitimate, considerable time and effort will have to be spent.

The situation is so unclear that there has been talk of holding new elections. Such an outcome would undoubtedly reinforce populists’ positions and plunge Belgium into prolonged uncertainty. And Michel’s accession to the European sphere sparks yet another question: who will become the new acting-PM while we await the formation of a new government? If no coalition emerges before 1 December 2019, parties will still have to agree on a legitimate (temporary) successor to Michel.

Innovative compromises are in the very nature of Belgian politics

However, though the fractures in Belgium’s political landscape are increasingly apparent, there is little sign that the status quo will ever reach a breaking point. Belgium is unlikely to split any time soon – a reality that can be seen as both positive and negative, depending on whom you talk to.

Thankfully, while many countries would be paralysed by the lack of government, the prospect does not seem daunting to the average citizen. In fact, Belgium is able to function in a relatively normal manner, its devolved federal system having a large part to play in keeping the country standing, given that many policy areas today are decided by regional powers. Continued stability is also guaranteed by the King who in time of governmental negotiations holds the crucial role of tasking individuals to test the waters.

The lack of concern for the current political crisis may result from citizens’ disconnect to politics, or perhaps from the fact that Belgians seem to have simply grown accustomed to the oddities of their system.

For instance, Belgium’s requirement of providing equal status to both principal languages has resulted in political negotiations at the national level to be conducted in both Dutch and French simultaneously. Negotiators are simply expected to excel in both languages, with each of them communicating in the language of their choice and their counterparts responding in theirs.

Such innovative compromises are thus in the very nature of Belgian politics. And successful Belgian MPs have long lauded their ability to seek concessions from all sides. Michel is only following in the footsteps of many of former ministers who have gone on to fill high profile positions in European institutions.

But the muddled results of these elections are still an unwelcome surprise. While there is little doubt that a solution will ultimately be found, the time and effort that this will take really is of no benefit to anyone. Uncertainty is far from the preferred situation, yet sadly it’s not expected to subside any time soon. The silver lining, if there is one, is that Belgium is maintaining its status as a remarkable training ground for future European leaders.

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