A Belgian conundrum

Published: 12 December 2018

Although the N-VA has insisted it left the Belgian government to pursue ’principled opposition’ those principle are, says Coree Brown Swan, at the very least informed by a strategy that allows it to maintain policy influence from outside government while countering the electoral threat posed by a resurgent Vlaams Belang.

With federal elections scheduled for May 2019, the centre-right Flemish sub-state nationalist party and the largest Belgian party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) has left the governing coalition. The party advocates confederalism, a far-reaching state reform which would strengthen the autonomy of Flanders and Wallonia. The N-VA entered coalition at the centre after its victory in the 2014 elections, allying with the Flemish Christian Democrats and the Flemish and Francophone Liberals, Open VLD and Mouvement Réformateur. On Sunday, the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel met with the King and announced the formation of a new minority government, without the N-VA.

The N-VA has been vocally opposed to the United Nation’s Global Compact for Migration, due to be signed in Marrakesh on the 18th of December, arguing that the pact would require signees to cede sovereignty over issues around migration. A recent web campaign published by the party against the compact featured young men queueing for services and a European street scene with women wearing burqas with the tagline ‘UN migration pact – a focus on maintaining the migrant’s own culture’. These were widely criticised by other political parties and the media as Islamaphobic. Ultimately, the images were pulled but the party continued to stress its objection to the agreement and insisted it would not support the government’s actions in Marrakech.

As it became clear that Prime Minister Charles Michel intended to sign the UN Compact, the party resigned from government. This was a decision which reflects the party’s increasing mobilisation on issues of immigration but also electoral considerations as it looks ahead to May’s election. Participation in government at the centre is rare for a sub-state nationalist party, only the N-VA’s predecessor, the Volksunie, and the Lega Nord in Italy have done so. And for the Volksunie, their participation came at a high electoral cost, a lesson the N-VA may have cleaned.

It is difficult for substate nationalist parties to participate in the government of the state they seek to radically reform, or even dismantle and these tensions are evident in the party’s current situation and past strategy. In its early years, the N-VA spoke of ‘principled opposition’, arguing that while other parties might neglect the interests of the Flemish community in return for the spoils of office, it would not. As its electoral success grew and Belgium faced a series of crises related to the formation of a federal government, the party risked being branded as one of permanent rather than principled opposition. In the run up to the 2014 elections, the party then argued that it had the courage to govern, and make change.

However, in forming the federal coalition, it agreed to put state reform on the backburner, in exchange for an opportunity to enact far-reaching socio-economic reforms. This was reflective of the party’s desire for action on economic and social issues, but also of its strategic thinking. With N-VA in government at the centre, Francophones might also might begin demanding state reform themselves, placing the issue on the broader political agenda.

Following its withdrawal from government, the party has returned to the theme of principled opposition, arguing that the agreement was not what the party, or the population, wanted.

But it is likely that these principles are informed by strategy. With a minority government at the helm, the N-VA will still be politically influential in policy-making at the centre. With an eye to May’s election, it will be easier to campaign from outside of government rather than inside of it, positioning itself as  a party which seeks change rather than the Belgian status quo. The party’s harder messaging on immigration may also help the party counter a resurgent threat from the far-right Vlaams Belang which made gains at October’s  provincial elections, capturing 13% of the Flemish vote.

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