Belgian coalition talks stumble over commissioner choice

Marianne Thyssen, Belgian Christian-democrat MEP (EPP) [European Parliament]

Marianne Thyssen, Belgian Christian-democrat MEP (EPP) [European Parliament]

The outgoing Belgian prime minister, Elio Di Rupo, has asked political parties engaged in government coalition talks to choose an EU commission nominee before Friday (1 August).

Four parties have started negotiations on the next coalition government – the Flemish separatist N-VA, the Flemish Christian-democrat CD&V, and the liberal parties on both sides of the country’s linguistic border, the Open VLD (Dutch-speaking) and the MR (francophone).

Di Rupo, the socialist outgoing prime minister, sent a letter to the presidents of the four parties urging them to come up with a name for the Belgian EU Commission post before the end of the week.

Several names have been floated in the Belgian press.

Marianne Thyssen, a senior Flemish Christian-democrat MEP, is seen as the frontrunner in the race. A leading member of the European Parliament since 1991, she has strong credentials for the job.

Thyssen also has the advantage of being a woman. The new president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, is desperately looking for qualified female candidates, and said women “will be rewarded” with a strong portfolio or a vice-presidency.

The Belgian outgoing minister of foreign affairs, Didier Reynders, has the backing of his French-speaking liberal party MR and could get the Commission post as part of a deal on national ministers. Karel De Gucht, the incumbent Flemish liberal EU commissioner for trade, is seen as an outsider and could prolong his stay in the EU executive.

Postponing the decision could mean losing an important portfolio in the new Commission, Di Rupo warned. Earlier this month, he expressed worries about going to the European Council meeting on 16 July without a nominee at hand.

The EU-level discussions, initially aimed at appointing the next EU foreign affairs chief and European Council President ended in a deadlock, blocking the distributions of Commission portfolios.

Belgium still hopes to secure a key portfolio at the last minute but he question of who will succeed De Gucht has knocked Belgian negotiators off balance as talks on forming a new government drag on.

The coalition currently being discussed was dubbed the “Kamikaze Coalition” by the Belgian press. The French-speaking liberals of MR are the only party representing the francophone community. Their willingness to sit in a government with the Flemish separatist N-VA is seen as politically suicidal in the French-speaking part of the country.

Belgian voters headed to the polls to elect European, federal and regional representatives, in what was dubbed "the mother of all elections" in national media, on 25 May 2014.

As was predicted in the polls, the Flemish separatist party, N-VA, came out on top in the elections. The leader, Bart De Wever, and his party exceeded 30% of the votes cast in Flanders. The rise of the Flemish separatist party was explained by a fall in the polls of Vlaams Belang, the Flemish party that dominated the (far) right side of the spectrum for two decades. For the ruling parties, led by prime minister Elio Di Rupo (Socialists, Liberals and Christian-Democrats), the elections marked a return to stability.

In July 2014, the regional governments for Flanders and Wallonia were formed. A right-wing coalition will govern the Flemish community, while a centrist coalition will govern the French-speaking community. At the federal level, the Flemish Christian-democrats (CD&V), the Flemish separatist N-VA and liberal parties on both sides of the language border (Open VLD and MR) are trying to form a coalition government.

  • 1 August: Deadline for the Belgian parties negotiating the next government to put forward an EU Commissioner nominee
  • 31 August: Deadline for all EU governments to put forward their EU Commissioner nominee
  • 1 November 2014: Target date for the next Commission to take office

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