Wind of Change Across Belgium’s Four Seasons

The Liberals in Belgium have succeeded once again: after Charles Michel and the Acting Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, Alexander De Croo – this time a Dutch-speaking Liberal – will lead the new Belgian government . About 500 days after the elections, Belgium once again has a proper government consisting of seven parties and bearing the beautiful name “Vivaldi Coalition”.

Forming a government in Belgium is never easy. On the one hand, there are countless parties, which is due to the fact that there are different parties in the Dutch- and French-speaking parts of the country. This means that there are not one, but two independent liberal, green, Christian Democratic, etc. parties. In In addition, there are regional or separatist parties. On the other hand, conflicting regional interests often prevent a quick agreement at federal level. Nevertheless: 493 days after the parliamentary elections, socialists (sp.a from Flanders, PS from Wallonia), liberals (OpenVLD & MR), Greens (Groen & Ecolo) and the Flemish Christian Democrats agreed last week on a joint government programme.

The 44-year-old Alexander De Croo, a bilingual liberal Fleming from the Dutch-speaking periphery of the predominantly francophone Brussels, was accepted by all parties as Prime Minister. Although the leader of the Walloon Socialist Party, Paul Magnette, coquetted in front of the press that the election was “by heads or tails and Alexander won”, a socialist Walloon would not have been acceptable to either the Flemish Christian Democrats or the Walloon Liberals. As I said, it is never easy in Belgium.

Before the breakthrough, new elections had seemed likely for a long time. Most recently, the Flemish nationalists of the N-VA (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, New Flemish Alliance) and the Walloon socialists had failed to present the King with a government majority. The two “gravediggers of Belgium”, who are constantly trying to push through the particular interests of their respective parts of the country, had attracted the discontent of many parties with their intrigues. It was a sensation when, in mid-August, a four-party alliance of Greens and Liberals from both parts of the country jointly declared that they no longer wanted to be played off against each other. They also refused to support the course of a further split between the two parts of the country. However, most observers at the time considered it impossible that they would succeed in forming an effective government with Flemish Christian Democrats and Walloon Socialists.

The King as “Kingmaker”

King Philippe, who according to the Constitution initiates exploratory talks between the parties but is otherwise not allowed to express himself politically, gave the negotiators more time than usual this time. Alexander De Croo, who as Deputy Prime Minister of the previous government had often accompanied the royal couple on state visits, benefited from his long-standing relationship of trust with the royal family.

The result is a social-liberal coalition in which each of the seven parties is represented: this includes the creation of a “Fund for Change” to boost the economy and €1.2 billion to improve salaries and working conditions in the health sector. The Socialists pushed for an increase in the minimum pension to €1,500 per month, the Greens for a partial phase-out of nuclear energy by 2025. Zakia Khattabi and Meryame Kitir, two representatives of Belgium’s large Moroccan minority, are prominent in the government, and Petra De Sutter, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Public Administration, is Europe’s first transgender politician with ministerial rank.

More Pragmatism, Cooperation and Respect

In his first government statement, Prime Minister De Croo pleaded for a new political style: “We need more pragmatism, cooperation and respect. Toughness has never had a positive impact in politics”. The new government also wants to reduce the tensions within Belgium, which are the source of strength for the separatists in the Flemish part of the country.

Almost more important than which parties form the new government majority is the question of which parties are not involved: with the Flemish nationalist N-VA and the radical right-wing “Vlaams Belang”, the two largest parties in Flanders are left out. The N-VA alone represents 48% of the Flemish electorate. A few days before the swearing-in of the new government, ” Vlaams Belang ” was able to motivate some ten thousand separatist Flemings to go to Brussels and immerse the car park in front of the King Baudouin National Stadium in a martial black and yellow Flemish sea of flags.

“Let us not artificially perpetuate the conflict”, replied De Croo in the inaugural session, which due to the Corona distance rules was not held in the small Belgian Federal Parliament but in the plenary of the European Parliament. “This coalition has decided to overcome differences and start from common ground”. The government was determined to overcome both ideological and regional reservations. The 44-year-old concluded with a quote by US basketball legend Michael Jordan: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships”.

For the Flemish separatists and nationalists, the new government is downright “undemocratic and anti-Flemish”. The leader of the N-VA parliamentary group, a declared separatist, said that the time of Belgium was over. It was dead and would already “smell bad”. This is to be contrasted with how vibrant Belgian party democracy shows itself every time the future of the kingdom is on a knife edge.

And What Does All This Have to Do With Vivaldi?

Very simple: whereas alliances of two or three parties are often named after the colours of a flag (e.g. “Jamaica or Kenya coalition”), with seven parties involved, it is difficult to find a flag with the appropriate colour combination. The four political ideologies reflected in the new Belgian government – Liberals, Greens, Socialists and Christian Democrats – each stand for a season, which in turn refers to the work “The Four Seasons” by the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Voilà, the “Vivaldi Coalition”. As I said: if it were easy, it would not be Belgium.

Markus Kaiser is the head of the Europe department of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and an avowed Belgium fan.