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An idiot’s guide to Belgian politics

by editor

Here’s what you need to know to avoid looking like a fool when talking politics in Brussels.

in Brussels

Illustration by Lorenzo Conti for POLITICO

This article is part of the Brussels guide special report.

When a country holds the world record for time taken to form a government, you know its politics is complicated.

So whether you’ve just arrived in its capital or just want to appear a bit smarter with your local neighbors, here’s what you need to know about politics in Belgium.

Gimme the basics

The next time Belgians go to the ballots is on June 9, 2024. That day, they’ll vote for their regional and federal representatives as well as in the European Parliament election.

Belgium is a federal state, so whether you’re trying to find a school for your kids, report a hole in your street, or need a license plate for your car, it helps to know which government to turn to.* And in Belgium, there are plenty of governments.

Power is divided between the federal government, three communities (Flemish, French-speaking and German) and three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels). The communities are in charge of language-linked issues such as education, child care and culture. The regions are in charge of territorial issues such as mobility, environment and housing.

So far, so good? Here are two things to make it extra complicated. There is no hierarchy in this system, so the federal government cannot overrule any of the regional decisions. This means disagreement sometimes leads to political paralysis. On top of that, a lot of competences are mixed. In health care, for example, child care and elderly care are community competencies, while hospitals are a federal matter.

(*If you live in Brussels, you can find a French-speaking school via the French community or a Dutch-speaking school via the Flemish community. If you want to report a hole in your street, best to take it up with the commune or the government of the Brussels region. If you need a license plate, you’ll be dealing with the federal government.)

Which language do I speak without offending anyone?

Brussels is officially bilingual French-Dutch. In the northern region of Flanders, Dutch is the official language. In the southern region of Wallonia, the official language is French, except for a small region in the east of Belgium, where the official language is German.

In practice, French is the lingua franca in the capital (and English is fine if you don’t master French — don’t tell French speakers though). Around Brussels, especially in the east, French is also used a lot, but assuming all locals will respond to your queries in French can be politically tricky and sometimes insulting. If you want to stay on the safe side, you can always ask which language locals feel most comfortable with.

Political parties are divided based on language, which means someone in Antwerp, for example, cannot vote for a politician from Liège. Belgians who vote in Brussels can choose whether they vote for a Dutch-speaking or a French-speaking politician.

What is all this talk about splitting the country?

In the northern region of Flanders, there has long been an independence movement that argues Belgium is an artificial construction and too French-dominated. The main political goal of the two biggest Flemish political parties is more Flemish autonomy. The far-right Vlaams Belang, which is currently leading in the polls, wants Flanders to become a fully independent country.

However, there are important hurdles to overcome, even if Vlaams Belang ends up winning next year’s elections as projected. They would have to convince the Flemish nationalists of the N-VA to work with them, despite a decade-old promise by the Belgian political establishment not to govern with the far right. Even then, the French-speaking side of Belgian politics is likely to be a no-show at the negotiating table, at least to begin with. Splitting up the country would also lead to major questions about the future status of Brussels.

Any chance the Belgians will beat their own record without a government?

The small country holds the world record for the longest time taken to form a government during coalition talks — over 500 days. Current Prime Minister Alexander De Croo needed seven parties, a pandemic, and a lot of time to form a coalition for a federal government. This time around, the centrist parties are really under attack, from Vlaams Belang on the right in Flanders and the communist PTB in Wallonia.

If there’s no government, will bus 71 to Flagey stop running?

No. The popular bus line between the center of Brussels and Ixelles, where a lot of the Eurocrats live, is operated by Brussels transport company STIB. The government of the region of Brussels, which is in charge of the STIB, is traditionally easier to form than the federal government. But even at the federal level, Belgium works pretty well (or at least, not much worse than normal) with or without a government.

Wait, can’t the king just appoint a new prime minister?

King Philippe is the neutral arbiter in trying to form a government. Based on the election results, he appoints the politician who can start consultations and ultimately form a government. But inconclusive national elections, or different results in the south and the north of the country, can make this job a political minefield. In his 10 years in office, Philippe has generally been praised for his handling of these sometimes difficult choices. But there has been controversy, for example when he invited a leader of the far right to the palace after the 2019 election.

Who’s who?

Here are some names to know to look smart in a discussion about Belgian politics.

Alexander De Croo: Flemish liberal De Croo is the prime minister and leads an ideologically diverse seven-party coalition. If the cards fall right after the 2024 elections, De Croo has indicated he wants to stay on as PM. At the same time, his name is also circulating for European top jobs. Belgium will then hold the presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2024, giving De Croo an informal seat at the table in the deliberations for those same jobs.

Bart De Wever: Flemish nationalist De Wever has led his N-VA party to huge wins, and even briefly into the federal government. He currently combines his job as party president with governing the city of Antwerp. More Flemish autonomy is a key political ambition for both his party and De Wever personally.

Tom Van Grieken: The president of the far-right Vlaams Belang has been key to its recent successes. The goal of Van Grieken, who became leader when he was just 28, is clear: Flemish independence. Just like Marine Le Pen in France, Van Grieken has been careful to stay tough on migration while rejecting the idea that he heads a racist party.

Raoul Hedebouw: The perfectly bilingual Hedebouw is party president of the communist PTB/PVDA. His party is currently the second biggest in POLITICO’s Poll of Polls and is especially popular in Wallonia, where it is challenging the French-speaking socialists, traditionally the biggest political force in the region.

Paul Magnette: Just like De Wever, Magnette combines his party presidency of the French-speaking socialists with being mayor of the city of Charleroi. Magnette, whose long political career includes leading the Walloon region, now faces the challenge of keeping the communists at bay in the south of Belgium.

Georges-Louis Bouchez: The president of the French-speaking liberals, the party of European Council President Charles Michel, is a controversial figure in Belgian politics. He’s adamant about defending his liberal viewpoints, even if that results in not finding a deal within the federal government, as was the case with recent fiscal reform.

Political parties

Vlaams Belang: Flemish far right

N-VA: Flemish nationalists

Open VLD: Flemish liberals

CD&V: Flemish Christian democrats

Vooruit: Flemish socialists

Groen: Flemish greens

PS: French-speaking socialists

PTB/PVDA: Communists

MR: French-speaking liberals

Ecolo: French-speaking greens

Les Engagés: French-speaking Christian democrats

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