EU country briefing: Belgium

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The following article is a part of a series of brief country profiles for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections in May.

Belgium has been at the very centre of the European project since its creation, as one of the original members of both the Schengen Area (1995) and Economic Monetary Union (1999). 

Its capital city, Brussels, acts as the EU’s de facto capital, co-hosting most EU institutions: the European Commission, European Parliament and European Council, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and European Committee of the Regions (CoR).

Moreover, the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) are also located in Brussels, making the city a polyglot home to an army of international diplomats and civil servants.

As of 2014, national elections are held together with federal and regional elections in the country. Belgium’s convoluted and frequently changing political system (for which it has often been mocked) is sometimes considered to be even more complex than that of the EU.

Despite its prominent institutional status, with 11.3 million people, the country accounts for just 2.6% of the EU’s total population – excluding the United Kingdom. 21 Belgian Members of European Parliament (MEPs) are due to be elected this year.

Belgians are generally more positive about their membership of the Union than the average EU citizen. Compared to the EU average, 71% of citizens consider membership in the bloc to be a positive thing, while only 9% have a negative view.

Moreover, 79% of Belgians consider themselves as EU citizens, above the EU average of 71%. Likewise, the euro currency enjoys above-average support (84% in favour, 14% against).

Economy

The country’s economy has been relatively stagnant in recent years, with an average growth rate in real GDP of 1.5% between 2014 and 2018, below the EU average (2.1%). GDP growth is also forecast to slow further to 1.3% and 1.2% in 2019 and 2020.

Belgium is vulnerable to potential future economic shocks as it has little room to provide fiscal stimulus due to its relatively high public debt of over 100%, because of which it has been subjected to fiscal policies prioritising deficit reduction.

Furthermore, Belfius, the bank that emerged from Dexia (its predecessor which needed a big financial bailout in 2011), remains a headache for the federal government due to the numerous (political) obstacles that have halted a much-needed stock market launch.

There is an economic disparity between the region of Wallonia, whose economy prospered in the era of coal extraction but has since languished, and the region of Flanders, which has thrived since the 1960s due to the expansion of light industrial and petrochemical industries while being buoyed by increasing foreign direct investment.

The economy of the Brussels-Capital Region presents its own special case along with the minor east-Belgian German-speaking region.

With a total GDP of €439 billion in 2017, Belgium represents a notable 3.4% of the EU total (without the UK). Belgians enjoyed an average of €35,000 real GDP per capita in 2017, comfortably above the EU’s average (€27,700). However, the difference between Flanders (€39,800) and Wallonia (€25,300) is significant.

For Belgium as a whole, this amounts to 117% of the EU28 average when it comes to purchasing power standards (PPS), and 120% and 84% for Flanders and Wallonia respectively.

Unemployment is currently low at 6%, below the EU28 average of 7%. However, the young generation is in a less fortunate position, with youth unemployment (15.8%) slightly above the EU average. Here again, considerable regional differences exist, as Flanders recorded an unemployment rate of 3.5% as opposed to Wallonia’s 8.5% and Brussels’ 13.4%.

Political context and direction

Belgium is a federal constitutional monarchy. The Belgian monarch, King Philippe, who ascended to the throne on 21 July 2013, is the country’s head of state.

The prime minister (currently Charles Michel, presiding over a minority caretaker government until the federal elections) is the head of government in a competitive, multi-party system.

The federal state comprises three communities (Dutch-, French-, and German-speaking) and three regions (Brussels-Capital, Flanders and Wallonia). The division of the national territory across language areas was made part of the Belgian Constitution in 1970, following growing civil conflict between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities.

The new constitution recognised the existence of strong communitarian and regional differences within Belgium but sought to reconcile these differences through the diffusion of power to the communities and the regions, which came into force in 1980.

In 1993, the Belgian parliament approved a constitutional package transforming Belgium into a full-fledged federal state as we know it today. Most notable was the changed first clause of the first article of the Constitution, stating that ‘‘Belgium is a Federal State which consists of Communities and Regions’’.

Since around 1970, Belgian national political parties are split into linguistic groups and distinct representations for each respective community’s interests and ideologies.

The traditional parties include the Christian Democrats — the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V) and their French counterpart, the Humanist and Democratic Center (CDH); the Socialist Party (divided into Flemish- and French-speaking branches – sp.a and PS); the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open VLD); and the French-speaking liberal Reform Movement (MR).

The French- and Flemish-speaking Green parties (Ecolo and Groen!) have gained voters in recent years.

Due to the country’s historical language split, support for separatism is a steady part of the political landscape in Belgium.

In Flanders, the Flemish separatist parties right-wing populist Vlaams Belang (VB) and comparably moderate nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) both strive for a gradual secession of Flanders from Belgium. In recent years, the N-VA has become the largest party of Flanders, as well as of Belgium as a whole, and participated in the 2014–18 government until its exit on 9 December 2018.

In Wallonia, the right-wing populist Parti Populaire (People’s Party) is in favour of a more decentralised confederal Belgium.

There are, however, notable differences in the political significance and weight of these parties by region.

In Flanders, economically more liberal and ethically conservative centre-right parties (not least the N-VA since 2010) dominate the parliament, while in Wallonia, the centre-left social democrat PS is the dominant political party.

With a highly fragmented political system, Belgium is no stranger to political crises, amidst persistent divisions between its Flemish and French-speaking communities. The country’s political landscape is splintered, with the N-VA and PS taking opposite positions on nearly all crucial policies – from economics to law and order.

After an inconclusive election in 2010, the country muddled through for 589 days without an elected government.

The outcome of 2014’s federal elections also proved difficult. Eventually, the liberal leader Charles Michel formed a right-wing coalition in October 2014, becoming the country’s youngest prime minister since 1841 at age 38.

While Michel’s liberal MR party represented the French-speaking community, the other three parties in the newly formed coalition represented Dutch speakers – including the Flemish nationalist N-VA, which came first in the regional elections. The make-up of the coalition was remarkable for including only one Walloon political party and was even dubbed a ‘‘kamikaze’’ coalition, for having the extreme right on board.

One of the most notable embodiments of the country’s political fragmentation was seen in 2016, when Wallonia temporarily blocked the ratification of a free-trade deal between the EU and Canada, on protectionist and environmentalist grounds.

Back then, linguistically-divided Belgium’s seven different parliaments had to first give the federal government power of signature for Belgium to give its official approval.

More recently, in April 2019, Belgium abstained in a vote over the launch of new trade negotiations between the EU and the US, as the government of Wallonia, together with France, opposed the negotiations citing the withdrawal of the Trump administration from the Paris climate agreement in 2017.

On 9 December 2018, Michel’s administration lost the support of the N-VA, its biggest Flemish coalition partner, after the Flemish nationalists opposed the government’s backing for the UN’s Global Compact on Migration.

Members of the Flemish nationalist party, most notably former State Secretary for Asylum and Migration, Theo Francken, claimed that the UN agreement was a crackdown on national sovereignty and a country’s right to self-determination. The departure stripped Michel of his majority six months before the federal elections.

After the departure of N-VA, Michel tried to carry on with the three remaining parties as a minority government. He sought a coalition of goodwill to keep the government afloat just until the next federal elections but failed to secure the support of parliament.

On December 18, Michel was forced to step down and tender his resignation to King Philippe after the socialists and the Greens proposed a vote of no confidence. King Philippe finally accepted Michel’s resignation on December 21.

Belgium is now under a minority caretaker government. Upon the king’s request, Michel’s administration will stay on a caretaker capacity until the elections on 26 May, where Belgium will be holding European Parliament elections but also national and regional elections.

Though the N-VA has successfully made the topic of immigration one of the core themes of May’s elections, the recent so-called ‘‘climate protests’’ as part of the FridaysForFuture movement has played into the hands of the regional green parties as well, increasing their support in both Flanders and Wallonia.

Predictions

Partly because the country hosts the main EU Institutions (and has a complex political system itself), it has traditionally been more receptive than most towards European integration.

Voting in Belgium is mandatory and all elections use proportional representation which in general requires coalition governments and will naturally result in the highest turnout across the bloc.

With only a few weeks to go until the polls, European matters are largely absent from the national and regional agendas.

However, the political party forecast to win the highest number of seats, the nationalist N-VA, currently sits with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in the European Parliament and supports a looser, ‘confederal’ EU system.

Opinion polls place the N-VA at around 18%, which would translate into around four MEPs for the ECR.

Nonetheless, the green parties from Wallonia (Ecolo) and Flanders (Groen) enjoy 9% and 8% of support in polls, respectively, and are set to gain four seats together (2 each), for the Greens–European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA). The Greens have been profiting from the FridaysForFuture movement, and work increasingly closely together.

The same goes for the Flemish liberals (Open VLD), expected to secure two seats with their 9% of support, and the Francophone liberals (MR) that could also win two seats with 7% of support. These four seats together would go to the Progressive Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE).

The Christian Democrat parties, CD&V from Flanders and CdH from Wallonia, both part of the European People’s Party (EPP), are set to win 2 seats and 1 seat respectively, with 9% and 4% of support. However, the total amount of MEPs to go to the EPP could still reach 4, given that a small German-speaking Christian Democrat party (CSP) could add another seat.

The Francophone Socialists (PS) remain a significant force and are set to win two seats with 9% of support in the polls. Its Flemish counterpart, the sp.a, is polling lower at 8%. The former is expected to win two seats, whereas the latter is set to win a single seat. Altogether, these 3 will go to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Finally, both the far-left Worker’s Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA) and Flemish nationalist VB could send one MEP each. The VB currently sits with the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) in the European Parliament.

One potential MEP for the communist PTB/PVDA would be a novelty, as it had no prior representation in the EP and operates as one of the few unitary Belgian parties. It’s unclear which group it would join, although most likely the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL).

More interesting than the actual results of the European vote will be whether the N-VA, in the end, remains in the ECR Group, especially as the British Conservatives are set to depart soon and the grouping is looking for ways to replace them with like-minded parties.

Ery Papalamprou works in Evaluation and Research of EU policies. She is an LSE Law graduate and a qualified lawyer, admitted in the Athens Bar Association. 

Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics.  He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

Thomas Van de Putte is a PhD candidate in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London. He used to work for Reuters, and as a freelance journalist for the Belgian national broadcaster and the investigative platform apache.be.

Daniel Matthews-Ferrero is a Marie Curie PhD researcher in the POLITICO programme at the University of Aberdeen, focusing on contemporary Western European populism. He holds a Master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe.

Fengwei David An is a graduate student in International Relations and Diplomacy at Leiden University’s Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs and the Netherlands Institute for International Relations Clingendael.

More on Belgium and EU elections at EUnewsBelgium.com

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