The fact that Belgium does not work is a belief for the N-VA that must be reinforced at every opportunity. Even in a complex, international crisis, such as an energy shock.
When all governments of the country held a national tribute ceremony on 24 March 2016, two days after the attacks in Zaventem and Brussels, then Flemish Prime Minister Geert Bourgeois (N-VA) was the only government leader absent. The Flemish government preferred its own commemoration on the Brussels Martelaarsplein, where it has its headquarters.
A ‘misunderstanding’, so the uneasy institutional conflict was soon covered up. That’s not quite right. The national ceremony took place on the Natieplein, near the federal parliament, and the idea of contributing symbolically to the image of a united ‘Belgian nation’ is difficult for a convinced Flemish nationalist like Geert Bourgeois.
Bourgeois’ attitude helps to understand the position that Zuhal Demir, current Flemish Minister for Energy and frontwoman of N-VA, took on the Consultation Committee on the energy crisis. Even if they do not immediately have the same style, within N-VA Demir belongs to the Bourgeois movement. What they share is the old VU DNA, with aversion to compartmentalized power (as is now apparent in the nitrogen file). Calling them ‘left’ might offend them, but in a party that also houses Theo Francken or youth chairman Jeroen Bergers, they are certainly not on the right wing either.
What they also share is the strongly Flamingant conviction that nothing good can be expected from Belgium. This was noticeable in Demir’s initial reaction to the announcement of a Consultation Committee on the energy crisis. “To refuse consultation would be rude, but consultation about what?”, the minister scorned.
The opposition to a new Consultation Committee was widely shared within the N-VA. The party does not have good memories of the series Consultation Committees about the corona crisis. The N-VA representatives – leading in the Flemish government, federal in the opposition – never managed to find a good attitude. Only now that the pandemic has ebbed and the Flemish nationalists can fully opt for the resistance against ‘Vivaldi’, the party is getting some color again. The appetite to reappear in the same subordinate role is therefore limited. Certainly because it was the federal coalition’s intention to present the image that the responsibility for the energy crisis is collective.
However, the struggle is about more than just a tactic. A Consultation Committee that functions properly provides evidence that Belgium, as a state, can also function. Unity makes power, so to speak. Flemish nationalists are of course deeply convinced that Belgium does not work and cannot work. It is the key argument for the call for a confederal state reform. And for the eventual, probable division of the country that must then follow. Cooperating on proof to the contrary – that cooperation pays off, also in a Belgian context – is therefore difficult for the N-VA.
In that attitude you could see an application of the time-honoured ‘Baert Doctrine’, named after Frans Baert, the former VU politician who passed away this year. Baert proposed three principles that a state reform had to comply with in order to receive VU support. Such a reform had to take a big step forward towards more Flemish autonomy, should not hinder later, further steps and should not require too high a political price. An intergovernmental Consultative Committee that gains in importance could be regarded as an ‘infringement’ of the Baert Doctrine, because it increases the federal authority and thus distracts from the straight path to more Flemish independence. As if it heralds a silent refederalization.
From a Flemish nationalist logic, it is understandable to mistrust such a body, which de facto ranks the federal government higher. This is not a one-off incident. Under the auspices of federal climate minister Zakia Khattabi (Ecolo), the country’s competent regional ministers must divide the internationally agreed climate efforts. This burden sharing has traditionally been difficult because Flanders is putting its heels in the sand. Zuhal Demir is, once again, sitting at the table for the Flemish government. On this point too, she believes that Belgium should not (co-)determine what Flanders should do.
That ‘for Belgium nothing’ attitude is not without risk. It is true that Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (Open Vld) tries through the Consultation Committee to get all parties (minus the radical ones) into the bath of crisis management, but there is more. Once again, it appears that our form of government is not suitable for responding quickly and adequately to complex crises. It was the lesson of the corona crisis and of the water disaster in Wallonia, and it is now also the lesson of the energy crisis.
Collaboration is therefore not just a matter of tactics. It is also a matter of good governance. The mistrust in Vivaldi may be great and the misunderstanding about the particularly ill-timed nuclear exit correspondingly, quite a few people have also seen an N-VA that places its ideology above the will to protect the prosperity of citizens as much as possible. That is difficult for a nationalist party that also wants to be a broad popular party.
What should alarm the N-VA is that criticism of this attitude also comes from its own environment. In an initial response to the results of the Consultation Committee, the Flemish entrepreneurial umbrella organization Voka initially asked the Jambon government for more decisiveness. Voka calls on the Flemish government to give absolute priority to the development of a support mechanism for companies. That the Flemish government is still holding on to its plans until its September declaration sounds a bit silly, after a long summer of political calm.