Will Flemish separatists save the Tories in Europe?

Flemish nationalist rally [Tijl Vercaemer/Flickr]

Flemish nationalist rally [Tijl Vercaemer/Flickr]

The Flemish separatist party N-VA is once again set to make big gains in Belgium’s triple elections this month, but they remain undecided about which group to join in the next EU Parliament. Could they become the much-needed new member of the ECR group, led by the British Conservative Party?

In Belgium, the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) of Bart De Wever is set for an electoral home run. Latest polls in April showed the party could win up to 32% of votes in the country’s northern constituency, Flanders.

Belgians don’t just vote for the European Parliament on 25 May, they also elect a new federal and regional government. This will be a “Super Sunday” for the country, which the Belgian media has already dubbed “the mother of all elections”.

The predicted win will set the N-VA up for executive power on both regional and federal levels. The party has toned down its separatist rhetoric to a pragmatic “confederalist” stance and has defined the debate for Belgium’s mainstream political parties.

But at a European level, even a landslide victory for the N-VA would translate into only about four seats in the next EU Parliament, meaning it needs to forge alliances if it wants to exert influence. And what the N-VA will actually do once they are there is a difficult question.

The N-VA is currently a member of the European Free Alliance (EFA), a grouping of regionalist parties that forms a joint group with The Greens in the EU Parliament called The Greens/EFA group. Relations between the Flemish separatists of N-VA and their Green adversaries, Groen!, at home, have reached boiling point in recent months.

With just under two weeks to go before the elections, Green MEP Bart Staes told EURACTIV, “The N-VA’s leading candidate [Johan Van Overtveldt] has repeatedly said that it will leave the group, in several election debates.”

All options open

So far, Belgium’s fastest rising party has dodged questions over which group it will join.

“Apparently, that is the billion dollar question, now,” Van Overtveldt told Belgian public radio last week. “We decide after the elections. Factions in the European Parliament behave very differently from factions in the national parliaments,” he said.

Dave Sinardet, a political commentator and professor at the University of Antwerp, told EURACTIV, “They have left all options on the table throughout the campaign.”

One option for the N-VA would be to join the liberal ALDE group, led by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, a convinced euro-federalist. The ALDE already includes a Basque regionalist member party, as well as a Catalonian one. The Flemish separatists have similar views on economic and budgetar?y issues as the right wing of ALDE.

But Sinardet dismisses this option as “political science fiction” as both Bart De Wever and Verhofstadt are fierce domestic rivals. 

The European People’s Party could also be an option. This would be difficult to explain to citizens supporting the Flemish Christian-democrat CD&V party and would also be a bitter pill to swallow for the Spanish Partido Popular, which struggles with domestic separatist tensions.

Welcome seats for ECR?

One of the most likely scenarios is that the Flemish party will join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the next EU Parliament. Almost half of the group’s MEPs are from the UK Conservative party. Poland’s Law and Justice, and Poland Together parties make up of a considerable part of the group, as does the Czech Civic Democratic Party.

Latest forecasts gathered by PollWatch show that ECR will lose the representation of member parties in Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania or Hungary. The minimum threshold for forming a group is seven countries and 25 MEPs. The latter will not be an issue; the former will.

The Flemish N-VA could become the fourth largest force in the ECR and could leverage this fact in negotiations. High-level sources from within the current Belgian ECR member, LDD, say “discussions have been going on for years.”

Two years ago, the Flemish N-VA already sat at the table as a ‘member candidate’ in group meetings, the source said. In March 2011, De Wever visited Downing No. 10, the home of the British Prime Minister. The meeting was arranged by the only Belgian MEP in the ECR group, Derk Jan Eppink of the LDD party.

“I do know that, at this point, there is no commitment to join,” Eppink told EURACTIV last April.

But joining the ECR would be counterintuitive for the Flemish nationalists who have a pro-European manifesto. “The euro, the single market, defence and even foreign policy belong at the European level,” the manifesto reads.

Still, it is a mixed bag. The N-VA has adopted the term “euro-realist” to describe their stance. “Some competences would then be brought back to the national level, but it is unclear what these competences are,” Sinardet said.

The ECR on the other hand takes a clear reformist stance on the European Union, in line with the UK Conservatives plea for a strictly market-oriented Union.

The EFA group’s future

The Flemish N-VA is among the founding members of the European Free Alliance, which was recognised as a party in 2004. Since 1999, the MEPs related to the party form a joint group with the Greens.

The party is made up of regionalist members across EU member states and many of these defend left-leaning policy positions. The Flemish N-VA takes a more right-wing stance on economic and social issues as well as on immigration. The Flemish representative in the outgoing parliament, Mark Demesmaeker, was loyal to the voting behaviour of The Greens/EFA group in only 63% of cases.

According to Simon Hix, head of the political science department at the London School of Economics (LSE), other EFA members like the Scottish National Party or the Welsh Plaid Cymru are likely to continue to work with the Greens in Parliament: “They seem comfortable as they see themselves as ‘left wing’.”

In countries like Spain and the United Kingdom, the separatist question puts a strain on the election campaigns. Last week, EURACTIV Spain reported on the Catalonian question which has spilled over into the pan-European campaigns of the Spitzenkandidaten

Laura Rayner, who works with the Scottish National Party (SNP) MEP Alyn Smith, told EURACTIV: “We’re happy where we are. It is up to the other members of EFA group to decide for themselves but the Scottish SNP is very happy with the cohabitation [of the EFA and The Greens].”

Belgium organises European, federal and regional elections on 25 May. The crucial elections will define the political landscape for the coming years and have been dubbed 'the mother of all elections' by Belgian media.

In the northern part of Belgium, the Flemish nationalist party New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) has been winning support. They are polling above 30%. The N-VA has also announced it will leave the Greens/EFA group in the EU Parliament.

Separatist tensions forced a deadlock on the country’s politics in a 541-day-long political crisis in 2010-2011, in which the country was without government.

  • 22-25 May: European Parliament elections across EU member states
  • 25 May: Federal, Regional and European elections in Belgium
  • 18 Sept.: Scottish independence referendum
  • 9 Nov.: Catalan independence referendum

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