‘I never thought it, but I have noticed that something has started at Vlaams Belang.’ N-VA chairman Bart De Wever surprised last week Gert’s Table with an approving nod towards Vlaams Belang. He likes what has happened there in recent months. Filip Dewinter has been ‘pushed back’ and Dries Van Langenhove even ‘kicked out’. De Wever, who said three years ago that he would rather leave politics than enter into an agreement with Vlaams Belang, thus sounded a completely different note than most N-VA members recently proclaimed. Political scientist Bart Maddens (KU Leuven) knows the area between the two parties like no other.
Does Vlaams Belang really want to change to become a credible coalition partner for N-VA?
Bart Maddens: Yes. It has never become completely clear why exactly Dries Van Langenhove left the party, but Filip Dewinter has indeed been pushed into the background for that reason. There are other signs that point to this. As the party’s major vote-getter, Chairman Tom Van Grieken will lead the Antwerp list for the Flemish Parliament and not for the House. Some see this as a concession to the N-VA: that party asked Vlaams Belang not to participate in the federal elections, since its votes are useless there. Lode Vereeck will draw that federal list in Antwerp. Vereeck is not exactly a vote cannon and also fits in with the party’s strategy to give itself a more serious image.
De Wever is resigned to the fact that he cannot break Van Grieken’s momentum.
Do such steps open the door to cooperation?
Maddens: These statements by De Wever mainly fit in with the N-VA’s strategy to constantly blow hot and cold about Vlaams Belang. In one interview we get the impression that the door is really closed, while a week later it turns out to be ajar again. That ambiguity has been there for years.
I found most leaders of the N-VA very clear lately: we cannot do business with Vlaams Belang.
Maddens:(blows) That’s what they say, yes. You should take a look at what they do. In 2019, the N-VA spent almost a month in serious negotiations with Vlaams Belang about a Flemish government. That was hardly a courtesy call. In 2019, Dries Van Langenhove had just been elected from a list of the Vlaams Belang and Filip Dewinter was party leader and figurehead. What was possible for the N-VA then, must also be possible in 2024.
Something else: De Wever said in Gert’s Table also that after the elections he no longer wants to cooperate with parties that conclude agreements with the PVDA. Vooruit will first have to cancel its coalitions with that party in Borgerhout and Zelzate before there can be any question of a coalition with the N-VA. That is already a strong statement, for which he can soon be held accountable.
Cooperation with Vlaams Belang will always be a plan B for the N-VA.
What is your feeling about the collaboration between N-VA and the VB?
Maddens: The N-VA has always been against the cordon sanitary. On the other hand, it has long been clear that the party is currently targeting the centrist voters of CD&V and Open VLD. She has resigned herself to the fact that she cannot break the momentum of Tom Van Grieken and Vlaams Belang. The party will campaign on socio-economic themes. De Wever proved this once again in the campaign video he launched last week. I always thought his book about woke was just a sideshow. Just like the migration theme, it will never become a spearhead of the campaign. For the centrist voters, the distance with Vlaams Belang must also remain large enough.
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What is often claimed: the N-VA is split in two if it collaborates with Vlaams Belang.
Maddens: Collaboration with Vlaams Belang is not a preferred scenario for anyone within the N-VA. The love for that party is really not that great, because it is Vlaams Belang that humiliated the N-VA in 2019. Parties that fish in the same pond to attract voters, and even have a certain ideological affinity, can be each other’s biggest enemies. The N-VA hopes to pick up the thread of 2020 in 2024 and conclude a major agreement with the PS on state reform. Only if that proves impossible, because no one wants to talk about state reform at the federal level or because there is simply no longer a majority in favor, will the N-VA again look to Vlaams Belang for possible cooperation in Flanders. Assuming, by the way, that they together have a majority. But that will always be plan B.