Karel De Gucht, the EU trade Commissioner from Belgium, lashed out at the Flemish nationalist party N-VA for joining the Conservative group in the European Parliament, saying they played a “dirty trick” on the liberals, who are led by another prominent Flemish, Guy Verhofstadt.

The choice of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) to join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament continues to stir controversy in Belgium.

Belgium’s EU Commissioner for trade policies, Karel De Gucht, told the public broadcasting sevice on Sunday (22 June): “It is an important political fact because, for the first time, a leading Belgian party decides to join a Eurosceptic group.”

“Traditionally, all big Belgian parties […] have supported further European integration,” De Gucht said. “We’re an open economy at the heart of Europe, where EU institutions are based, and that is an important asset for our business and economy.”

The N-VA’s choice was “harmful for Belgium” added the Belgian commissioner.

For several weeks, the N-VA had negotiated to enter the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, led by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

“They asked us to negotiate [a cooperation],” De Gucht stressed. Last week, the group opened the doors for accession of the party, which would deliver them four additional seats in the EU Parliament.

But in a party vote the next day, the Flemish nationalists opted to join the ECR instead, embarrassing the liberals’ leader Guy Verhofstadt in the process.

“It is a dirty trick, the way this decision was made,” De Gucht, showing his discontent.

>> Read: Liberals embarrassed as N-VA joins ECR, making it third largest Parliament group

The issue could obstruct ongoing talks on the formation of federal and regional governments in Belgium.

On 25 May, Belgium held a federal and regional vote, as well as a European one. N-VA won all three elections, coming out as first party across the board.

In the past two weeks, the N-VA's leader Bart De Wever has sought to form a coalition to lead the next Belgian government. Their main partners, the CD&V, is a member of the European People's Party (EPP) and a clear supporter of European integration. The ECR, by contrast, is led by the British Conservatives, who are fiercely opposed to further European integration.

“The British Conservative party has a completely different idea on Europe,” De Gucht argued on Sunday. “I wonder what the CD&V will do with this – a party that has always maintained a strong pro-European line with figureheads like Wilfried Martens [former president of the centre-right EPP party] and Jean-Luc Dehaene [former MEP for the EPP group].”

Liberals in fourth position

The ECR surprised observers in the aftermath of the European elections on 22-25 May. In the past weeks, the group succeeded in rounding up ten new parties to join their alliance, or a total of 23 new MEP seats.

Their total number of seats, including those of older members, is 68, which makes them the third largest group in the European Parliament. This, too, is a blow for the liberal ALDE group, who was hoping to play a role of ‘kingmaker’ in the next five years.

>> Read: Cameron's group challenges liberals as kingmakers in new Parliament

The deadline to form political groups is 24 June, for groups who want to enter the new Parliament. The EU Parliament will hold its first plenary session in Strasbourg next week, on 1-3 July.