While the EU is gearing up for election season, Belgium is preparing for its own regional and federal elections all scheduled for 9 June — with analysts warning about a potential deadlock due to the surge of the far-right.

Like in Europe more generally, the far-right has been gaining steadily in the polls, specifically in Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Recent polling has put the Flemish nationalist parties, the right-wing N-VA (European Conservatives & Reformists group in the European parliament) and the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) (ID group) at a combined majority in the Flemish regional parliament, leading to fears about a far-right government take-over — and even sparking worries about the future of Belgium itself.

However, Dave Sinardet, professor of political science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, is quick to emphasise that such fears are overblown. “Polls tend to create realities rather than reflect them.”

He argued that “a week is a long time in politics” while recalling how just a year ago people were speculating that the leader of the Flemish Socialists ‘Vooruit’ Conner Rousseau would become prime minister.

Sinardet points out that within Belgium’s byzantine governmental structure, forming a Flemish regional government with Vlaams Belang might not be in the interest of the N-VA.

“They’ve made clear that they want to govern at the federal level, and strike a deal with the French-speaking parties on more flemish autonomy. Governing with Vlaams Belang at the regional level is diametrically opposed to that, because the far-right is less normalised in Wallonia. Most French-speaking parties will refuse to negotiate if the N-VA does that,” he said.

Kathleen van Brempt, a Socialists & Democrats MEP and former Flemish minister is also unfazed by the far-right scare, emphasising that this is not her first rodeo: “I started my political career around 2000, when Flemish Block [Vlaams Belang’s predecessor] suddenly made enormous gains in Antwerp. It is possible to push them back to the margins, if you campaign well, but above all by putting stronger policy in place.”

That doesn’t mean that the polls are no cause for concern for van Brempt and others.

“If you give [the far-right] a chance, that can have dramatic consequences. At first not for people like me, but if you start to exclude people, I know that in the end, it will be my turn as well, as a woman” van Brempt said, emphasising the importance of a ‘cordon sanitaire’ against the far-right,” she said.

When asked about whether they would work with Vlaams Belang, an N-VA spokesperson told the EUobserver that “the discontent of the Flemish voter is focused on federal issues”. At the national level, Vlaams Belang is seen as a problem because no French-speaking party wants to work with them.

However, he indicated that the prospect of a far-right Flemish government could be used to force a deal at the national level. “We could commit to refraining from forming a government with Vlaams Belang at the regional level, but only if the other Flemish parties promise not to form a national government without a Flemish majority [which would include the N-VA],” the spokesperson said.

Van Brempt doubts that such threats will prove effective. “Do you really think that Paul Magnette [leader of the Wallonian Socialists] will be impressed if you say “I’ll enter a coalition with Vlaams Belang”? No way.”

RIP Vivaldi?

No matter what the N-VA decides to do, forming a federal government is likely to be a serious challenge.

A simple reprisal of the current so-called ‘Vivaldi’ government, a grand coalition of centrist parties named after the composer of the four seasons, is increasingly unlikely as several governing partners stand to lose significantly in the polls.

But the reforms demanded by the N-VA, which wants more independence and less fiscal burden-sharing between Flanders and Wallonia, could become a stumbling block.

“Many of their proposals are completely unrealistic. And it will be practically impossible to reach the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional change,” according to Sinardet.

The danger that Belgium ultimately faces, therefore, is political paralysis, feels Van Brempt. If the N-VA does make good on its threat and forms a government with Vlaams Belang in Flanders, she predicts a deadlock: “The country won’t fall apart, but you’ll get a standstill on the federal level. And the Wallonian and Flemish governments won’t be able to work together, so you’ll get a complete blockage”.

Because of the peculiarities of its brand of federalism, such a deadlock also would have consequences for Belgium in the EU, Sinardet points out. “In Belgium, the regional governments have far-reaching powers on the international level as well.”

In practice, this means that the regional governments in Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia constantly need to agree on a common position in the EU. “If Vlaams Belang does get into government, that could threaten the entire architecture of Belgium’s practice of collaborative federalism,” warns Sinardet.

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