Europe obscured by multiple national elections

In Belgium, there are no less than five local elections stealing thunder from the European elections. No surprise, then, if Belgians are paying little attention this time round.

Belgium is one of the founding nations of the European Union, and remains a highly pro-European country. Apart from the far-right, no party shows much scepticism towards the EU. Even the conservative nationalist N-VA, who have their criticisms, feel that their goal of Flemish independence would be best achieved by strengthening the power of the Regions within the EU. For his part, the outgoing prime minister Charles Michel has put a lot of effort in to Europe, especially through his partnership with French president Emmanuel Macron, and his frequent interventions in favour of consolidating the European project. Belgium, it is safe to say, is broadly europhile.

However, despite all this, the European election campaign hasn’t been all that visible in Belgium. The most obvious reason is that the 26 May election occurs on the same day as five other elections: the federal election, regional elections the Flemish region, the Walloon region and the Brussels region, and the parliament election for the German-speaking community. The decision to hold so many elections at the same time is intended to make things less complicated for this federal state.

This has had a major impact on the public debate in Belgium. Firstly, in terms of media coverage, the national and regional elections have received far more coverage, even if the larger outlets have tried their best to at least mention the European elections.

Secondly, Belgian issues are of the utmost importance in this national election: indeed, the very survival of the country is at stake. It should be remembered that the leading political force in Belgium is the New Flemish Alliance (Nouvelle Alliance Flamande, N-VA), a pro-independence party. They advocates for the independence of Flanders in the first article of their statutes. They wish to separate Flemish from French-speakers. If, during the current round of elections, French-speakers vote left and the Flemish vote right, which the polls seem to suggest, it will prove difficult to form a national government. If that turns out to be the case, Belgium could face a major crisis, similar to that of 2010, where the country was 541 days without a government. This is why the European elections haven’t taken centre stage.

We should also add that the simultaneity of national and European elections leads to a difficult choice for political parties. They generally prefer to keep their more powerful electoral machinery for the national elections. So, with a few notable exceptions, it’s not the strongest political personalities who are candidates for the European Parliament. We might mention the exception of Paul Magnette (PS), one of the heavy hitters of the Socialist party, leading the electoral lists. However, he recently announced that if he is elected he won’t take his seat. The other candidates are mostly unknown to the general public, or faded stars of national politics, giving the impression that the office of MEP is an end-of-career reward, rather than a way to realise genuine ambitions.

Nevertheless, this situation hasn’t robbed the European election of all its interest. One thing especially stands out: the likely success of the Greens. Polls show them to be making strong progress, and the local elections last October already demonstrated their power, especially in Brussels, where the party could become the leading political formation (an historic turn of events). The debate on climate change has also aroused interest during the election campaign: and not because the parties put it on the agenda.

Rather, it’s all down to the pupils who took leave from their schools back in December to protest in Brussels, then in other Belgian cities. At the movement’s peak, at the start of this year, the protests gathered 30,000 pupils: a huge number for a country the size of Belgium. Very quickly, the climate debate entered both the national and European campaign agenda, with every party trying to green up their programs. Only the Greens were genuinely prepared, and quickly rose in the polls. Observers are therefore expecting a “Green Sunday”. Caution should be advised, however, since economic and social issues, very sensitive in Belgium and not such a strong point for the Greens, returned to the agenda in the late stages of the campaign.

As in other countries, another stake in these elections, national as well as European this time round, is the potential outcome for the far-right. In the French-speaking parts of Belgium, it barely exists, apart from a handful of miniscule parties. In Flanders, the far-right is more active, and represented by Vlaams Belang in the parliaments, with a score of around 10 percent. This party could prove a surprise in this round of elections.

The debate on immigration has become very heated in recent months, and it’s possible that this topic will pump up the party’s popularity. They could, as in other countries, become a powerful political force, and join the ranks of Belgian MEPs. At the national level, however, they aren’t likely to enter government, since the other parties have agreed not to join them in any coalition.

It’s in this context, then, that Belgium will elect its 21 representatives in the European Parliament.

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