As a small and compromise-based country, Belgium has always played a central role in the history of the European Union. Never has membership been questioned, never have there been harsh criticisms on its policies. This may now be changing, as a consequence of right-wing populism and left-wing activism. This does not mean however that European politics and European elections have any meaningful place in today’s political discourse. The direct reason is very simple: on the 26th of May Belgium also had national and regional elections. These were perceived as being much more important for the immediate future of the country.
It is impossible to speak about the political situation in Belgium without a brief explanation on its complex institutional set-up.
Belgium has three ‘communities’ and three ‘regions’ though their borders do not coincide. Communities are culture-based: Dutch, French or German speaking. Regions are based on a territorial division: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels Capital region. Each entity has its own legislative and executive powers. It leads to a total of six governments and six parliaments, which is not only a recipe for multiple conflicts and power games, but also a hard nut to crack when representatives for Council of Minister meetings have to be decided on or when European treaties have to be ratified.
There are strict rules for the linguistic representation and decision-making in communities and regions, but not for parallel coalition-making, meaning a political party can be in power in one region or community, but in opposition in another or at the federal level. Add to this the divergent political and sociological situations in both major parts of the country, North and South, and some of the complexities of governance may start to be understood.
Voting is obligatory in Belgium, which means participation rates are usually very high. European elections are organised with separate lists in each of the three communities. Belgium has 21 members in the European Parliament, 12 for Flanders, 8 for Wallonia and 1 for the German-speaking community. Brexit will not change this composition.
The political, economic and social situation
After the federal elections of 2014, a coalition government was formed with liberals (MR) on the French-speaking side, and nationalists (N-VA), Christian-democrats (CD&V) and liberals (Open VLD) on the Flemish side. The federal government lost its majority in October 2018, when the nationalists left because of the UN-drafted migration pact that was adopted in Marrakesh.
In the French-speaking community and in the region a government was made with social-democrats (PS) and Christian-democrats (CDH). PS was expelled in 2017 from the regional government, after some financial scandals and replaced by the liberals (MR). Just before the elections, this government also lost its majority.
In Flanders the government consisted of nationalists (N-VA), Christian-democrats (CD&V) and liberals (Open VLD).
Traditionally, the two major power parties are the social-democrats in Wallonia and the Christian-democrats in Flanders. This has now changed in Flanders with Flemish nationalists taking over as major party in the center and radical left-wing PTB threatening the power bastions in Wallonia. These changes are more than just shifts in power and deepening the ideological gap between Flanders and Wallonia. They may also influence how the country is looking at ‘Europe’ in the future since both these parties are more Euro-sceptic.
Economically, past governments have been following the neoliberal options with austerity, shifts in social spending from traditional welfare state policies (unemployment insurance, pensions …) to more and more privatised and subsidized care and deregulated labour markets with flexi-jobs. Important to note is the fact that the Flemish nationalist party had temporarily ‘buried’ its ‘communitarian’ demands (State reform and more autonomy or even independence for Flanders) and replaced it with social-economic neoliberalism as well as the conquest of dominant positions in political, economic, social and cultural life.
Economic growth in 2018 was limited to 1,4 % and is expected to slow down in the coming years. Official ‘at risk of poverty’ statistics show 15,9 % for Belgium, though only 9,8 % for Flanders. Unemployment is 7,1 % in Belgium, though 4,4 % in Flanders, 9,8 % in Wallonia and 15 % in Brussels. Compared to other European countries, Belgium still has a rather good social protection system, thanks to its strong and institutionalised trade unions. The Gini coefficient for income inequality stands at 0.25, one of the best in Europe and the world.
Nevertheless, social protest has been growing in the past years. Many sectoral strikes have been organised and in February 2019 a national general strike paralysed the country. Demands concern the rising cost of living, cuts in the indexation of wages, reforms in pensions and unemployment insurance. Since autumn 2018 till the elections young people organised successful weekly demo’s (‘school strikes’) for the climate. These protests allowed for shifting the central issue for the elections from migration to environmental and social issues.
What opinion polls did not show three months ago started to emerge two to three weeks before the elections: a surge of the far right in Flanders. The radical left also grew considerably and will, as expected, have one French speaking member in the European Parliament. In Flanders it did pass the electoral threshold of 5 % for federal and regional elections. The tidal wave of the greens only materialised in the French speaking part of the country. In sum, governing parties all lost, the far right won in the North and the left won in the South, though social democrats obtained their worst result ever. The European vote was mostly influenced by national concerns. As the vote is obligatory, participation rate was 88,47 %, with 6,32 % of invalid and abstention votes.
Results for the European parliament -> See table on the right of the page
A polarised country in a polarised Europe
The results of the far right in Flanders are worrying, but should not surprise too much. In 2003 and 2007 already Vlaams Belang obtained 18 and 19 % of the votes respectively. It was the emergence of a nationalist, ‘civilised’ (apparently non-racist) right-wing party that shifted right-wing votes over to N-VA. This party now having been in government and having abandoned its ‘communitarian’ (nationalist) agenda, Vlaams Belang had an easy target. Though N-VA had a very hard anti-migration policy, the appearance along Flemish highways and near the coast of ‘trans-migrants’ searching for an exit to the United Kingdom is probably the main explanation for the renewed success of the far right.
As in other European countries, social-democrats are falling back, with around 3 % in North and South. They do remain however the largest political family of the country. In Wallonia and Brussels they have been faced with corruption scandals and inter-personal competition. At city-level, they have several excellent examples of what a modern social-democratic party can mean for citizens, but their long-term dominant position in the region has eroded their legitimacy and credibility. In Wallonia, the list for the European elections was led by Paul Magnette, known for his resistance to the free-trade agreement with Canada (CETA). However, he announced he will remain mayor of Charleroi and not take his seat in Strassbourg.
In Flanders, social-democrats are now very weak and were not able to develop a coherent and strong project in spite of a rather good programme for the European elections. While their coalition with the Greens was upheld in the city of Ghent, it broke in Antwerp where they finally entered a coalition with the Flemish nationalists. This shocked many voters who may have switched to the far left.
The Greens do progress, as expected, though less than what opinion polls predicted. Ecolo, in the South, wins close to 8 %, while the Flemish Greens do not gain more than 2 %. Ecolo becomes the largest party in Brussels. The question remains whether they can be counted with the left. They now do accept that climate justice requires social justice, but their programmes were rather weak on social protection and many of their Flemish representatives declare they prefer the liberals as coalition partners. In several municipalities they entered coalitions with Flemish nationalists.
The radical left, PTB, is the major winner of the elections in the South. Its success can be explained by a process of ten years of openness and consistent opposition and, in Wallonia, by the excellent work of its two deputies these past five years. Repeatedly pointing to the really existing social problems, the inequality and the negative consequences of neoliberal policies, disappointed voters of social democrats and governing parties shifted to the far left. Interestingly, what PTB and Ecolo win, is far more than what the social-democrats lost, so there clearly is a shift to the left in Wallonia. PTB/PVDA now has a total of 42 seats in the different parliaments voted for on May 26th.
PTB/PVDA can be counted with the radical euro-sceptics, presenting itself as Marxist and socialist, ‘consistently left-wing’. However, the programme for the European elections for 2019 is surprisingly concrete and realistic. It does start with a populist demand for halving wages of Commissioners and members of parliament, it continues to promote a withdrawal from the fiscal pact and promotes ‘progressive disobedience’ towards the Treaty of Lisbon, but it has around 80 pages of concrete proposals for European policies, geared towards social progress, strong public services, a social non-regression clause, a ‘future fund’ for investments, a solidarity fund for fighting unemployment, a European minimum wage, etc. It does not break with the European institutions nor with the Euro. It acknowledges the need to organise social and environmental struggles at the European level.
Two more movements have to be mentioned . ‘VEGA’ (Vert-Gauche or green/left) and ‘Mouvement de Gauche’ (Left Movement) merged in 2017 and formed the ecosocialist ‘Mouvement Demain’ (Movement Tomorrow). It is a member of the European Left Party but did not take part in the European elections.
‘DIEM25’, the movement inspired by Greek ex-minister of Finances Yanis Varoufakis created ‘European Spring’ and planned to take part in the European elections in Belgium. However, due to the very burdensome rules (5000 signatures in both major communities or 5 signatures of incumbent federal deputies) it was not able to do so.
Arguments for the left
In order to understand these election results, several elements have to be looked at.
First of all the differences between votes for national parliaments and for the European parliament.
Flemish liberals have more than 3 % more at the European level than at the national level. The easiest explanation here is the presence of Guy Verhofstadt in Europe, known for his role in the Brexit dossier and regularly present in the media.
Flemish nationalists have 4 % more on the national level, which probably also has to be explained by the protagonist role of Bart De Wever, very popular leader of the party, currently mayor of Antwerp and candidate prime minister in Flanders. At the European level, these votes went to the far right.
Even more important are the 2 % more at the European level for the Greens in Flanders and 5 % more for Ecolo in the South. This European progress may be explained by the arguments of governing and right-wing parties pointing to the danger of a ‘tax tsunami’. This result might mean that yes, people are aware of the importance of ecology, but do want to avoid the costs of it.
For other parties, the differences are minor.
Secondly, the argument for the shift to the ‘extremes’ is the anger of the public, faced with a deteriorating social situation, rising poverty and inequality, unsolved migration problems, the threats of longer working lives and rising taxes. It is the inability and even inertia of the government, that explains the rejection of traditional parties.
The third point of interest is the whole point of taxes. Right-wing parties did focus a lot on the high taxes weighing on the ‘working population’, including in this the contributions for social security, and the expected ‘green taxes’. Middle classes are said to be disadvantaged, compared to efforts done for the poor and for migrants and refugees. While statistics do not give any clear evidence on the truth of these assumptions, the fear of having to give in on wealth and welfare can explain part of the shift to the right.
Fourthly, and linked to the previous point is migration. While it seemed to have disappeared from the electoral agenda at the beginning of the campaign, it did remain very present. The impression that young people had succeeded in putting the focus exclusively on ecology, was clearly wrong. Daily media news on so-called ‘trans-migrants’, inevitably homeless, desperate and occupying public spaces, such as parking lots and a train station in Brussels, kept the population awake and fearful of ‘an invasion’.
Fifthly, as was repeatedly pointed at by the radical left, the social agenda played its role. More and more people, though living above the poverty line, have serious problems to make ends meet. Housing problems, lack of investment in education, cuts in social security, the threats on pensions, all these points have been very well covered by PTB/PVDA which certainly is a reason for its success. This is clearly a lesson for the future, since current austerity policies do hinder the development of well-funded social and environmental policies. If PTB/PVDA succeeds in a continued focus on all social and ecological deficiencies, its opposition role can be very fruitful.
Finally, more worrying is the fact that the ‘cordon sanitaire’ (a ‘protective knot’ – a commitment of all democratic parties to not cooperate or make coalitions with the far right – is on the brink of being loosened. For the very first time, the King, who constitutionally has the mandate to start consultations and lead the government making, has invited Vlaams Belang to the Palace. Also, N-VA integrated Vlaams Belang in the list of parties to consult, thus making them look like a ‘normal’ party. In the European Parliament, N-VA remained in the political group of the European Reformists and conservatives, which now also has the neofascist ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ and the far right and anti-regionalist Spanish party VOX.
At the national level, regional governments may not be too difficult to m ake, though the federal government will be much more difficult, with a (far) right close to 45 % in the North and a (far) left close to 40 % in the South, to which Ecolo has to be added. Two different countries in one.
In Wallonia, social-democrats and the far left had a mating dance, since with Ecolo, they could have a majority. However, ideological differences and political priorities are divergent, so it does not look as if there will be a left-wing progressive government.
In Flanders, both right-wing parties do not have a majority in Flanders, so chances of a right-right government are limited. But no majority is possible without the nationalists of N-VA.
In Brussels, a first agreement is now negotiated for a progressive government with mainly social democrats and greens.
As to the federal government, this will be the most difficult step to take. Belgium has a tradition of long negotiations. Once it took the parties 541 days to arrive at an agreement. They now promised to work more rapidly, though it is not an easy task. The main concern of the South is to avoid the nationalists in the federal government, though that would mean a national government without a majority on the Flemish side. Constitutionally this is perfectly possible, the past government had no majority in the South, though politically, it is more delicate. Even if State reform was not a topic during the campaign, N-VA put ‘confederalism’ on the agenda right after the elections.
For the Belgian left, that is the far left, social democrats and greens, changes at the European level are small. One social-democrat lost in the South is compensated by one more Ecolo. The radical left will have for the very first time a representative in Strassburg. Marc Botenga is a very intelligent and capable member of PTB and already worked for the GUE/NGL group in the past. If the party succeeds in translating its experience to Europe with concrete oppositional proposals, as mentioned in their programme, it will be able to give a serious contribution not only to the radical left group in the European Parliament, but most of all to the national party, allowing it to broaden its audience in the North of the country. Once more, it has been demonstrated that a radical social agenda can make the difference in elections.