What next for Belgium?

While The Observer questions the apparent consensus on the need for austerity in the EU, the next country due to take the EU presidency, Belgium, has been holding parliamentary elections.

Belgium’s Flemish separatist party, the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), has won more than 20% of the vote in parliamentary elections, according to early unofficial results.

If confirmed, the NVA would have the largest share of the vote, bringing the country closer to a split.

But, as RTÉ reports, others are less convinced that a split is on the cards.

Even if the N-VA is confirmed as the leading party in the country of 10.6 million people, which hosts the headquarters of the European Union and the Nato military alliance, it will not be able to start devolving powers to the regions immediately.

‘Belgium is not about to split up, but it is set for a reorganisation,’ said Professor Marc Swyngedouw of the Catholic University of Leuven.

The electoral system – effectively two elections with separate parties seeking votes from French-speakers and the majority Dutch-speakers – means at least four parties will be needed to form a governing coalition.

Parties from poorer French-speaking regions see devolution as a step towards Belgium’s break-up, which they oppose, but all have said they would consider some reform of the state.

The N-VA’s lead in polls triggered a nationwide debate about the possible break-up of the 180-year-old nation, with richer Flanders splitting from Wallonia, where unemployment is about double the national average.

Yves Leterme, the Christian Democrat who won the 2007 election on a pledge to win more powers for Flanders, took nine months to form his five-party government and offered his resignation three times in as many years.

Economists say Belgium cannot afford more tortuous coalition talks, with its debt-to-GDP ratio set to rise above 100% this year or next, the third highest level in Europe behind Greece and Italy.