Belgian government talks begin with Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever at the helm

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BRUSSELS — Five Belgian political parties have agreed to start formal coalition talks led by Bart De Wever, the president of the Flemish-nationalist party New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).

With De Wever at the helm, negotiations could very well make him the next prime minister — despite N-VA’s longstanding demand to separate the northern Flanders region from Belgium as an “independent republic.”

De Wever’s N-VA maintained its spot as Belgium’s party with the most votes after last month’s election, narrowly beating the far-right Vlaams Belang party.

On Wednesday, the Belgian King tasked the N-VA leader with entering coalition talks among parties. Other likely coalition partners include the French-speaking center-right Reformist Movement (MR), the centrist Les Engagés, the Dutch-speaking centrist Christian Democrat and Flemish party (CD&V) and the center-left Forward party.

The far-right Vlaams Belang party was never considered as a coalition partner.

De Wever is expected to report back to the king on the progress of the coalition talks July 24, the royal palace said in an emailed statement shared with POLITICO.

The greatest challenge during exploratory talks was to convince Forward to join the coalition talks as the only left-leaning party.

“We got clear openings,” Forward party President Melissa Depraetere told public broadcaster VRT late Tuesday. In an Instagram post, the party wrote it is taking “responsibility to give the formation of a federal government a chance.”

Health care expenditures are one possible point of contention between Forward and the center-right parties, such as the nationalist N-VA and the liberal MR.

N-VA said in its program it would seek to put the brakes on growth of Belgium’s health care budget, while Forward wants to keep the current growth intact.

If the talks were to succeed, the composition of Belgium’s federal government would reflect that of the regional governments on both sides of the country’s language border.

In Flanders, the N-VA, the CD&V and Forward are currently trying to form a government; while in Wallonia, the southern French-speaking region of Belgium, the MR and Les Engagés have expressed the intention to govern together. Talks on those governments are further along than for the federal government, and could finish this month.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo’s liberal Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats took a walloping in the vote; the party said it would not seek to join the government.

The current pace of federal government formation is unprecedented in Belgium — for its haste. It took a glacial 541 days to form a government in 2010 and 2011.

Belgium is one of the countries that the European Commission recently reprimanded for its excessive deficit. The country’s deficit reached 4.4 per cent of GDP last year.

Camille Gijs contributed reporting.

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