Nearly three months after both northwestern European states held their parliamentary elections, Belgium and the Netherlands are still without a government. This week, in both countries, negotiations over a new ruling coalition broke down, leaving neither with a clear political resolution for the foreseeable future.
June’s incredibly close elections in the Netherlands decimated the traditional ruling party, the Christian Democrats, while providing neither the right nor the left with a clear majority. The liberal party, which came out largest by just one seat compared to Labor, has spearheaded the negotiations for a new government up until now, attempting, most recently, to come to a coalition with both Christian Democrats and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party. Wilders is widely condemned on the political left for his Islamophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric but has fared well in recent years, more than doubling his seats in parliament in the last election.
Although much of Wilders’ support, particularly in the south of the country, comes from Christian Democrat voters, several conservative party leaders, among them three former prime ministers, have objected to the notion of governing with his platform in recent weeks. Former health secretary and current number two in the party, Ab Klink, channeled their concerns and persuaded two fellow parliamentarians to block the negotiations. Party leader Maxime Verhagen, simultaneously serving as caretaker foreign minister, ultimately managed to restore unity in his faction but lost Wilders’ confidence in the process.
Liberal party leader and likely future prime minister Mark Rutte has proposed to pin down a coalition agreement himself now and seek support from other parties later. The notion is not without precedent. Wim Kok, before he became prime minister for the Labor Party in 1994, attempted a similar method and was successful in forming the country’s first Purple coalition, bringing together social democrats and liberals in a single government. It depends on the recommendations of other party leaders and Queen Beatrix whether Rutte gets his way or another, conventional round of negotiations follows first.
In either event, amassing sufficient support for a majority government under liberal leadership will prove difficult to accomplish. Few of the parties on the left, which together hold about half of the votes in parliament, are willing to implement the liberals’ rigorous spending cuts on health care and social security. Each day that the country remains without a government, the Netherlands’ public debt mounts with some €100 million. The next government, the liberals say, has to find some €18 billion in permanent spending cuts on a budget that equals more than 45 percent of GDP.
In Belgium the political uncertainty is all the greater. June’s elections there brought Flemish nationalists to power who are demanding greater autonomy for the northern, Dutch-speaking part of the country. Compared to Flanders, southern, French-speaking Wallonia is relatively backward. Unemployment is twice that of Flanders while the region is responsible for but a third of Belgium’s total economic output.
While in Flanders, the political right — the nationalists and Christian Democrats — won the elections, in Wallonia, the socialists are in the majority. These two camps, supplemented with smaller parties from the center, have to reach an agreement on the federal level to form a new government.
Socialist leader and chief negotiator Elio Di Rupo offered the Flemish significant financial reform, including a transfer of competences from federal to regional governments worth some €15 billion. “All conditions were there for the center of gravity to shift from the federal state to the federated entities,” he declared. But the nationalist balked at parallel requests to give Brussels — an independent, bilingual region within Flanders of which the population is largely French speaking — a fixed subsidy of €250 million to alleviate part of its massive debt burden.
Di Rupo finally tendered his resignation as negotiator with King Albert II on Friday after several attempts to reach a compromise failed, complaining, in a press conference, that “not all Dutch-speaking politicians understand the sensitivities of the French speaking. They will not approve of an accord that heralds the impoverishment of Brussels and Wallonia,” he predicted. The Flemish, on the other hand, are largely tired of effectively subsidizing their southern neighbors for their lack of productivity. Any new administration will have to enact major legal and financial reform to further separate the two nations but with the political landscape so starkly divided, it seems unlikely that a government composed for a multitude of parties will have the mandate to do so.
Among the Dutch, the notion that Flanders should, once again, become part of the Netherlands is widely entertained these days. Modern day Belgium was part of the Netherlands between 1815 and 1839 when its secession was recognized in the Treaty of London. The Flemish now have reason to retort that their neighbors ought to get their own house in order before contemplating such schemes of reunion.