Populism Emerging in Belgium? How the Recent Turmoil Reshaped the Political Landscape

By Liesbet Debecker
When, on Saturday evening, the so-called ‘Swedish coalition’ that formed the Belgian government finally crumbled, no one who has followed Belgian politics over the past few weeks was surprised. What exactly happened in this chronicle of a death foretold? What led the Belgian government to collapse over a non-binding international treaty?

Up until 14 November of this year, the Belgian government, dubbed the Swedish coalition because of the alliance between N-VA, a Flemish nationalist and conservative party, the Flemish and Walloon liberal parties and the Flemish Christian-Democratic party, seemed likely to survive until the next election in May 2019. Granted, this government has been through crises in the past four years, but it has always managed to overcome them by finding compromise and consensus. Up until 14 November, it seemed like Belgium would support and sign the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. But on 14 November, the first cracks of a crisis that would break up the Swedish coalition began to show: the N-VA announced that it no longer backed the Global Compact for Migration. This came only a few weeks after the Belgian local elections, during which the N-VA had hoped to get a better result than obtained.

The announcement to no longer back the Global Compact came from the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Theo Francken. His period as Secretary of State has not been without criticism, with some disapproval already surrounding his appointment after accusations of racist and homophobic comments and ties to extreme right groups emerged. Yet he remained in office and became known for being proactive in trying to limit migration and tighten regulation. Controversy reared its head again in 2017, when he asked the Sudanese dictatorial regime for help with identifying Sudanese migrants staying in the Brussels Maximilian park in order to deport them. He later had to halt these deportations to Sudan when some of the identified migrants claimed they had been tortured upon return. Not long after he was heavily criticised by his opponents and various human rights groups, both nationally and internationally, for building new detention units for migrant families with children and reinstating the possibility to detain children before deportation, a practice previously condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. Both his policies and use of language often found condemnation.

“The N-VA gave the Prime Minister an ultimatum: either he abstained from signing the Compact or the party would leave the government.”

His policies became emblematic for the position of the entire N-VA, who made migration one of their key areas of interest. It is within this context that on 14 November, the party announced its inability to support the Global Compact, stating the treaty was incompatible with their migration policy. This announcement came more than a month after Prime Minister Charles Michel proclaimed Belgium’s support for the Global Compact in the UN General Assembly. In the weeks following the announcement, tensions rose as the N-VA gave the Prime Minister an ultimatum: either he abstained from signing the Compact or the party would leave the government. But the stronger the N-VA voiced its opposition against the Global Compact, the firmer the Prime Minister stood by his convictions.

This led to a game of political chess. As experts were clarifying the nature and contents of the Compact in parliament, the Flemish nationalists launched a campaign that not only condemned the Global Compact itself, but also condemned migration in general. The statements used in the campaign did not survive any factcheck. With this attack finding compromise with the rest of the government became impossible. Only two days after the launch of the campaign, on 5 December, the Prime Minister gained the parliamentary majority needed to support his trip to Marrakech. Any attempts of resuscitating the government over the following days failed and the final blow was admitted last Saturday, when the government decided to continue without the Flemish nationalists.

From afar, it would seem as if the N-VA gambled and lost its seat in the government. Not everyone would agree however. The minority government now in place until the next elections in May will have to find a majority in parliament for every measure they would like to adopt in the following months, which will not be an easy task. This will be seen with issues that are on the agenda but are yet to be implemented within the law.

The events of the past few days will also become hot topics for election campaigns, of which migration will now become one of the inevitable themes. Not only will N-VA be contending for the anti-immigration vote, but Vlaams Belang, a conservative Flemish nationalist and populist party, will be breathing down the party’s neck. Does the N-VA want to win votes by turning more populis? To some it is no coincidence that the controversy around the Global Compact started only shortly after the local elections, elections during which Vlaams Belang gained more support than it has during the past few years.

“Migration will now become one of the inevitable themes of the upcoming elections.”

Whatever the cause of the recent polemic, it has left the country more polarised. Over the past four years Theo Francken’s migration policy has caused heavy debates amongst the population. The recent events will only deepen the existing divide on the matter, a divide now also definitely entering at the governmental level. Whatever the outcome of the May elections, a political deadlock seems more plausible than ever.

Liesbet did a bilingual bachelor in law at the Brussels campus of the Catholic University of Leuven. After that, she obtained her masters in law at the Catholic University of Leuven, spending one year of her master’s on exchange at the University of Vienna. Her specialisations were criminal law, international and European law, but she wrote her thesis in human rights law. Her main interest is gender issues in law.