Federal elections were held in the Kingdom of Belgium on May 26 – the citizens cast ballots for the representatives of the federal and local parliaments, as well as the Members of the European Parliament. As in many countries of the European Union, right-wingers, populists and nationalists, strengthened their positions in Belgium. In the wake of the elections, experts speak about a possible repetition of the 2010 political crisis, when the parliamentary parties failed to form a government for the record 535 days.

Belgium itself is a unique example of a merger of Romance and Germanic cultures, a multilingual federation, which preserves, though, its national identity. However, the famous statement of socialist Jules Destrée “in Belgium there are Walloons and Flemish, there aren’t any Belgians” is still relevant today. In the 1960s Belgium embarked on the path of federalism due to the contradictions of the main national groups. As a result of successive state reforms that were being adopted until the end of the XX century, Belgium became divided according to a territorial logic – into Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels Capital Region, with each receiving their own parliament and government, into national communities: French, Flemish and German ones, and four linguistic areas: French-speaking, Dutch-speaking, German-speaking and bilingual Brussels. It is symbolic that multilingual Brussels has also become the capital of the European Union. As the regions of Belgium receive more rights and powers, own budget and international policies, the country is progressively shifting towards a confederation, and right-wing political forces only contribute to this. Given that the European Union was modeled after Belgium, the reasons for the problems in European integration and the success of Eurosceptics are becoming clearer. 

In 2010, the political instability in Belgium, as in many other European countries, was caused by the economic woes linked to the global financial crisis. The current change in the policy of the Old World has to do with the wave of migrants, a consequence of the Arab Spring and military conflicts in the Middle East. Following the 2014 elections, the Belgian government formed the so-called “Swedish coalition”, nicknamed after the colors and symbols of the parties that entered into it: blue for the Flemish and Wallon liberals, yellow for the New Flemish Alliance and, logically, a cross for the Christian Democratic and Flemish. Thus, a Swedish flag was made up.

Joining the coalition was a major success for the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a right-wing populist and regionalist party, which gained popularity in recent years due to its contrast with the far-right Flemish Interest (VB). Both rely on the political tradition of the so-called Flemish Movement advocating greater autonomy and even independence of Flanders. But the N-VA evaded the “cordon sanitaire” (an agreement of democratic forces preventing radical parties from forming the government) and logically entered the political reality of Belgium, in contrast to the radical rival. This is also explained by the formation of parties: N-VA as one of the heirs of the People’s Union party, known since the 1950s, while the VB is associated with far-right and extremist groups.

At the 2014 parliamentary elections, the Alliance received overwhelming support in Flanders, and its leader, Bart De Wever, became Mayor of Antwerp. Thus, a situation was created in which the government formation was not possible without the involvement of the Flemish regionalists. As a result, representatives of the N-VA took the most important posts as finance, interior and defence ministers. Also, members of the New Flemish Alliance occupied the posts of secretaries of state for poverty reduction, tax evasion control and science policy, for asylum and migration and administrative simplification.

The collapse of the compromise coalition was looming again due to economic reasons and energy policy issues, but it was caused by the decision of the Prime Minister and other parties on the U.N. Marrakesh pact (the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration). The pact was approved at the U.N. Intergovernmental Conference on December 10, 2018 in Marrakesh. The majority of populist, right-wing parties and movements of Europe used the pact for political purposes to weaken their rivals in the elections. Despite the fact that the document is not legally binding, its signing and ratification have already split coalitions around the world.

N-VA’s leader Bart De Wever announced that the ministers from this party would quit the government in case Prime Minister of Belgium signed the pact. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Charles Michel confirmed his intention to sign the document, after which ministers of the N-VA resigned on December 8. Ministerial posts were distributed among representatives of other parties, since the next parliamentary elections were to be held in May 2019. The coalition changed its name to “orange-blue” (blue for liberals and orange for Christian Democrats). Another name “New York coalition”, by analogy with the New York flag colors, later appeared in the media, and opponents of the Prime Minister started using the term “Marrakesh coalition”. So, Christian Democrat Pieter De Crem became Minister of the Interior, Liberal Democrat Alexander De Croo headed the Ministry of Finance, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, a member of the Reformist Movement Didier Reynders became Minister of Defense. The powers of the secretaries of state were distributed among other ministers.

Thus, the resulting government became a minority cabinet, since the New Flemish Alliance was still the largest movement in parliament. Therefore, less than two weeks after its formation, the “New York coalition” had to resign – the New Flemish Alliance voted against the 2019 draft budget. Also, the new Michel cabinet was heavily criticized by the opposition Flemish and Walloon socialists and the greens. The result was that no one, except for the N-VA and the Flemish Interest, backed the snap elections, and the “orange-blue coalition” became the government of “current affairs” with significantly limited powers.

The New Flemish Alliance managed to practically bring down the Belgian political structure and demonstrated that its former coalition partners cannot function without the regionalists. Before the May parliamentary elections, the New Flemish Alliance was on a very strong footing: different polls in December 2018 gave the N-VA 28-30% of the Flemish votes. And the only question on the agenda was whether the N-VA would be forming the next government, since many weren’t happy with such a controversial ally, and the likelihood that the Alliance would join the opposition camp was increasing.

De Wever was quick to pin the responsibility for the collapse of the coalition on the Prime Minister and the Reformist Movement. At a press conference he said: “Michel will take off from Belgium tomorrow as the prime minister of the Swedish coalition, but he will land in Morocco as the prime minister of the Marrakesh coalition. We are, as a party, not against migrants or migration, but we are against migration chaos”, thereby highlighting that Michel bartered away the domestic political stability for the fulfillment of vague foreign policy obligations. But the prime minister prevented all accusations by thanking the New Flemish Alliance for the four impactful years of work and announcing the government would be preserved. Speaking about why the N-VA was quitting the government, Wever said the following: “If Prime Minister Michel leaves for Marrakesh without our consent, he is de facto sacking us from the government. We formally notified the Prime Minister that we don’t agree to this pact. Other parties said the N-VA’s consent is not required for the Marrakesh trip. We dont think so.

On December 8, members of the right-wing populist Flemish Interest, the leader of France’s National Rally, Marine Le Pen, and the U.S. Republican politician, Steve Bannon, condemned the U.N. migration pact at an event in Brussels. Thus, the New Flemish Alliance received the international backing. And already on December 15, Brussels hosted the “March Against Marrakesh”, which was staged by several movements, including the extreme right-wing Outpost, the Shield and Friends, the Catholic Flemish Student Union and the Nationalist Student Association. The march was not authorized by the Brussels regional government, and Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region Rudi Vervoort called it a “brown march”. However, the Council of State later lifted the ban. Radical slogans were chanted: “left rats, pack your bags”, “our people first”, “no jihad in our country”, “we have had enough, close the borders” and “Michel, resign”.

So, on May 26, the victory was won by the Flemish nationalists representing the more economically developed north of Belgium. The New Flemish Alliance with 16% of the vote won 25 out of 150 seats, and the Flemish Interest with a result of 11.95% increased its representation to 18. Wallonia voted for the left: the Socialist Party won 20 seats (9.46%), the Labor Party – 12 seats (8.62%). The socialists of Flanders received 9 seats, which is 4 less than in the previous cabinet. The greens, represented by the two parties, received 21 seats, having added 9 seats. The centrists and liberals were put on the back foot: Christian Democratic and Flemish lost 6 seats (12 seats in total), and so did the Reformist Movement (14 seats in total). The Humanist Democratic Centre was left with 5 seats, having lost 4. Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats received 12 seats, having lost 2 seats.

Thus, one may talk about the unprecedented polarization of voter preferences in Flanders and Wallonia, the consequence of which was Bart De Wever’s statement that the issue of creating a confederation in the country needs to be raised.

The issue of the government formation becomes pressing again due to the mentioned “cordon sanitaire”, which the far-right Flemish Interest (18 seats) and the far-left French-speaking Workers’ Party of Belgium (12 seats) are falling under. Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders, representing the liberal Reformist Movement, has already spoken against the both parties’ making up the cabinet. However, the Belgian monarch, King Philippe, has tasked Reynders and a representative of the Socialist Party Differently, Johan Vande Lanotte, to act as mediators in negotiating a new federal government.

The former Belgian Secretary of State for Migration and Asylum, a representative of the New Flemish Alliance, Theo Francken, de facto supported the engagement of the Flemish Interest in the formation of the Flemish cabinet of ministers, noting that he wants to get rid of the cordon sanitaire: “They (Vlaams Belang) should present proposals, we will weigh the risks… If we form the government of Flanders, it will be a government for all the Flemish”. Francken also reiterated his party’s hardline – dialogue with the socialists may only lead to the creation of a confederation: “Have you ever read this economic programme? Free, free, free and paid four days a week. This is madness. Confederalism is the solution for this country. Other options will not involve the N-VA.”