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The Perpetual Struggle to Form the Belgian Government

This is the story of how Belgium—451 days after the last election—still finds itself in the middle of a government formation. Already thirteen so-called informateurs and preformateurs, tasked with investigating and exploring which parties would be willing to form a government, have been appointed by the king to investigate nine different types of coalitions. None was successful, as of today. This is not the first time forming a federal government takes such a long time. It is, in fact, the third time since the beginning of the millennium—one being a world record of 541 days.

We have to go back to a rainy Saturday evening in December 2018 to understand the gridlock, but first is in order to shortly summarise how the politics in Belgium work.

Explaining Belgium

Belgium is divided into two main regions: Wallonia and Flanders, and a separate capital city region, Brussels. The federal regions have a lot of autonomy and form state governments to govern themselves. Further, there are two main linguistic groups within these federal regions: French and Dutch. In the southern region of Wallonia the most prevalent language is French, whereas in northern Flanders most people speak Dutch.

The political parties in Belgium originally encompassed all linguistic groups: there was one social democratic and one christian democratic party to run in whole Belgium, much like in other nations. At one point the parties, however, split internally along linguistic delimiters, while still staying under one ‘political family’ umbrella. Modernly in Belgium, then, the name of the social democratic party in Dutch-speaking Flanders is abbreviated sp.a, whereas in Francophone Wallonia it is PS, both S&D. Certain parties—like the Flanders-nationalist N-VA (ECR) and the right-wing VB (ID)—run without all linguistic regions encompassing ‘political family’.

Complicating things further, it is deemed in Belgium that the composition of regional governments and the federal government need to match as much as possible —otherwise the regional government could provoke and undermine the federal government. Even more, individual linguistic parties of a ‘political family’ generally do not negotiate only by themselves, including one—most of the time—includes its linguistic counterpart.

Recipe for Disaster

On that rainy Saturday evening in December 2018, Bart De Wever, the long-time leader of the Flemish-nationalist N-VA, announced that his party was to leave the federal government if Prime Minister Charles Michel (MR-RE) would sign the UN Marrakesh Migration Pact. Michel proceeded to sign the pact and N-VA subsequently left the government. In the days thereafter, Michel tried to find support for a new minority government consisting of the remaining Dutch-speaking liberal Open VLD (RE), christian-democratic CD&V (EPP) and his Francophone liberal MR. However, he failed and the Michel II government continued with caretaker status.

The fall of Michel’s second government was the beginning of a long electoral campaign ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in May 2019. In Flanders, the right-wing VB had surged in polls after five years marked by—among other things—the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks. Such near-history was why N-VA felt pressured to leave the federal government on the issue of migration. In Brussels and Wallonia, the dominating issues were different. The left-wing PVDA-PTB (GUE/NGL) was on the rise after five years of high unemployment, austerity and corruption within the centre-left PS (S&D).

Finally, on 26 May 2019, Belgians voted in regional, federal and European elections. The traditional centre-left, christian-democratic and liberal parties in both language groups hit a record low, N-VA saw a significant loss while the parties on the fringes of the mainstream political landscape—VB and PVDA-PTB—surged. 

Uniting the Non-Unitable

After speaking to all party leaders, the Belgian king appointed Didier Reynders (MR-RE) and Johan Vande Lanotte (sp.a-S&D)—later coupled with Geert Bourgeois of N-VA (ECR) and Rudy Demotte of PS (S&D)—as informateurs, whose job effectively is to investigate which parties could form a federal government. They tried to get both language groups’ largest parties—PS from the centre-left political family and the Flemish-nationalist N-VA—together in a government. Yet the two parties did not agree, fearing that doing so would strengthen VB and PVDA-PTB on the flanks of the political system. Meanwhile, political parties were rather preoccupied with forming regional governments and electing new leaders before concentrating on the federal level. Eventually, the two informateurs resigned from their duty because no compromise was reached. 

Paul Magnette, the new party leader of the centre-left and francophone PS, was appointed informateur in November 2019 and went full on gas for a coalition consisting of the centre-left, liberal and green political families. However, this coalition had a major handicap: having no majority in Flanders, which could spark harsh opposition from N-VA. Frightened by such a scenario, the liberal Open VLD—who governs Flanders with N-VA—is reluctant. Therefore Magnette offered Open VLD leader Gwendolyn Rutten the federal premiership. Nevertheless, many Flemish liberal politicians rebelled when the centre-left policy programme of the hypothetical centre-left-liberal-green coalition leaked out. Magnette resigned from his duty and Open VLD-leader Rutten decided not to seek reelection in the coming party leadership election. 

The plan of Paul Magnette (PS-S&D) for government coalition—which eventually failed.

The next informateurs, party leaders Joachim Coens (CD&V-EPP) and Georges-Louis Bouchez (MR-RE), wanted to give another try on getting PS and N-VA together. They investigated the possibility of a government with the centre-left (PS and sp.a), liberal (MR) and centre-right (CD&V) political families, topped with N-VA. The duo was later succeeded by Justice Minister Koen Geens (CD&V-EPP), who enacted their plan. A thinkable compromise was a socio-economically left-wing, decentralising and on migration restrictive programme. Yet the liberal and anti-decentralisation MR—which would be included in the government, exceptionally, without its Flemish counterpart—resisted. Negotiations did not progress and Magnette abruptly ended them on PS’s part, after which Geens resigned as informateur. 

The plan of Coens (CD&V-EPP) and Bouchez (MR-RE), enacted by Geens (CD&V), for government coalition—which eventually failed.

Virus Arrives, Deadline Set

Ten months after the elections, the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Belgium. In the middle of March, when the infection rates kept rising, the new informateurs, Patrick Dewael and Sabine Laruelle of liberal political family, called the four political families and N-VA together. For a moment it looked like PS and N-VA in the midst of panic would come together, but the idea became spoiled fast. Instead, the minority caretaker government with the liberal political family of MR and Open VLD, plus the christian-democratic party CD&V, led by Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès—the successor of Michel who became a President of the European Council—received the temporary confidence of Parliament for six months with support from the centre-left and green parties, in order to handle the pandemic.

Temporary minority government of Belgium, led by Sophie Wilmès (MR-RE), in force until September 17th.

As the spring progressed, the centre-left sp.a leader Conner Rousseau decided something had to happen, since the clock towards 17 September—when the confidence for Wilmès’ government expires—was ticking fast. He and Magnette of the centre left PS appealed to their centre-left political family, being the country’s largest, and took the initiative of investigating the possibility of a new government. After a month of discussions, the duo came up with another formula with the traditional centre-left, liberal and christian-democratic political families. However, such composition was short of a majority. The party leaders of the current Wilmès II government—MR’s Bouchez, Open VLD’s Egbert Lachaert and CD&V’s Coens—ultimately decided to take the initiative for themselves afterwards, refusing to continue with the two centre-left parties’ work and exploring other combinations.

The three men tried to form a government consisting of the liberal political family of MR and Open VLD, christian-democratic political family of  CD&V and CdH, Flemish-nationalist party N-VA and centre-left party sp.a. The complexion of such a coalition would be getting the sp.a on board without its Francophone counterpart, PS. Leader of the sp.a, Rousseau—who has gained much popularity for showing himself as the most constructive in negotiations—, took the constellation seriously regardless of the exclusion of PS. He sent a list of left-wing policy demands for the rightist counterparts in the government, while pressuring PS to reopen the door to negotiations with N-VA.

The plan of Coens (CD&V-EPP), Lachaert (Open VLD-RE) and Bouchez (MR-RE) for government coalition—while still pressuring PS-S&D to join.

Eventually, the Francophone centre-left party PS indeed restarted such negotiations. The three party leaders of the caretaker government meanwhile had an internal conflict on abortion laws. These events made the king to replace the trio with Magnette (PS) and De Wever (N-VA). On the eve of Belgium’s National Day, 21 July, King Philip appointed the two men as prefomateurs, a step further from informateurs, to prepare the formation of a new government.

The plan of Magnette of PS (S&D) and De Wever of N-VA (ECR)for government coalition—which still falls short.

The preformateurs agreed on a compromise: a centre-left economic recovery plan for PS, and for N-VA a restrictive policy on crime and migration. In addition, the constitution would be reviewed, paving the way for a state reform with decentralisation to the regions. The Belgian constitution can only be changed if it has been opened up for revision and new elections held afterwards. The cooperation between the centre-left PS and the Flemish-nationalist N-VA is historic, considering both parties have been arch-enemies for years.

The agreement between PS and N-VA already has the support of sp.a—the Dutch counterpart in the centre-left political family—and the christian-democratic political family (CD&V and CdH). Yet still one other party is needed for the government to have a majority, and the liberals—especially MR—detest the horse trade between PS and N-VA. Yet trying to break the liberal political family—including Open VLD to government without MR—has turned out to be harder than anticipated. 

Should the courting of Open VLD fail, trying to get a confidence and supply agreement with the green political family was another option. However, negotiations with the greens ultimately failed on the issue of decentralisation. The preformateurs gave up, resigned from their duty and were replaced by Open VLD-leader Lachaert from the liberal political family.

On the Edge

There is talk of a coalition with the centre-left, liberal and green political families coming back on the table—a combination which was first proposed back in 2019. Yet it is hard to see this formula succeeding either, because Open VLD found the combination too left-wing last time, and relations between the parties have become even frostier since. Moreover, the agreement between PS and N-VA seems to remain intact, setting pressure on mainly the Dutch-speaking Greens and Open VLD. Either they stick to their Francophone counterparts’ opposition against further decentralisation, or give another shot at negotiating with PS and N-VA. There is, however, little time to agree on a new government with the deadline on 17 September approaching, when Wilmès’ minority government has to ask for a renewal of confidence.

Parliament is likely to vote against such a renewal which makes calling for new elections almost inevitable. Believing the opinion polls, Belgium’s political landscape will become even more complex, if physically possible. The right-wing VB looks to become the largest party in Flanders, while the left-wing PVDA-PTB surges in Wallonia. On both rests a cordon sanitaire, refusal to work with in governmental matters. The traditional parties are, conversely, seeing their polling numbers sink only deeper. And so does satisfaction with democracy in Belgium, declining by ten percentage points in just six months according to a research of Eurobarometer from February 2020. It is unclear when Belgium will have a new government, but it is clear that Belgians are tired and frustrated with the current state of their politics.

This article was further edited by Julius Lehtinen