Following Sunday’s election, Vlaams Belang is the 2nd largest party in the north of the country, with 18.5% of the votes and 18 seats in the Chamber.
The decision of the Royal Palace to receive the President of Vlaams Belang, Tom Van Grieken, this Wednesday morning is “far-reaching”, according to several constitutional experts. On the one hand, King Philippe will now avoid accusations of victimisation and rejection by the far-right party. On the other hand, he is arguably legitimising the leader of an openly xenophobic and homophobic party.
The last official meeting between a Belgian King and the leader of a far right party was in 1936, when Leopold III invited Leon Degrelle, head of the Rex party, to the Royal Palace. In 1978, King Baudouin also invited Karel Dillen, president of Vlaams Blok (the precursor to Vlaams Belang), but the latter declined the invitation because of his party’s aversion to the monarchy.
Neither the PS nor Ecolo offered an immediate reaction to the King’s decision. “The King has made his own decision,” commented Green Co-President Zakia Khattabi. “I have an opinion but I will not give it to you,” said Paul Magnette (PS).
A more impassioned reaction came from the president of the Brussels Federation of the SP, Laurette Onkelinx, who has begun negotiations to form a regional government. In her opinion, nothing required the King to receive Mr Van Grieken. “It shocks me deeply. Why does the King think he is obliged to meet with Vlaams Belang when there is a clear rejection among the Flemish parties, outside the N-VA, of breaking the cordon sanitaire [the agreement whereby mainstream Belgian parties refuge to collaborate with extremist groups]?” Ms Onkelinx said to RTBF.
Prime Minister and President of the MR, Charles Michel, argued to the contrary that “the King is just doing his job” of conducting post-electoral consultations. “There is a constitutional procedure … it is up to the King to conduct consultations,” he said, before adding: “Right now, we need calm to allow the country to be governed.”
The CDH is also not contesting the King’s initiative. “Just the idea of seeing Vlaams Belang arrive at the Palace scares the hell out of me, but given the democratic result in Flanders, no one will hold it against the King to receive Mr Van Grieken,” said Maxime Prévot, President of the Humanist Democrats.
The President of the PTB, Peter Mertens, also refrained from commenting on the King’s choice. “It is not for me to define the King’s agenda,” he explained, before going on to insist upon on his party’s commitment to fight fascism in all its forms.
Reaction among activists
The reaction to the King’s decision was considerably more virulent among activist groups. Stand Up, the group behind the anti-fascist demonstration that gathered several thousand people on Monday, did not hide its disappointment. “The King is the first to break the cordon sanitaire against the extreme right and fascism the day after the great demonstration which gathered 7,000 people! The fight will be a long one, but we won’t give up,” the group warned on its Facebook page.