Belgian king’s meeting with far-right leader sparks controversy

The leader of Flanders’ far-right separatist party has had an audience with the king of Belgium for the first time in the modern political era.

According to Belgian media, 1936 was the last time a far-right leader held an official meeting with the king.

King Philippe has been meeting party leaders since Monday, after national elections on Sunday split the country in two. Prosperous Flanders voted right, while Francophone Wallonia moved left, as voters on both sides of the linguistic divide rewarded fringe parties at the expense of the Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists.

Nearly 19% of Flemish voters chose the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), a stunning reversal of fortune for a party recently in decline.

The invitation to the palace sparked furious debate about how to deal with the resurgent far right. Vlaams Belang had long been excluded from government through a cordon sanitaire, whereby other parties refused to ally with the party.

The monarch plays a role in the delicate task of forming Belgian governments, which are always a Flemish-Francophone multi-party coalition.

Previous monarchs refused, in 1991 and 2003, to meet Vlaams Blok, the predecessor of Vlaams Belang. The anti-monarchist party turned down an invite in 1978.

Laurette Onkelinx, a Francophone Socialist lawmaker, said she was shocked by the king’s decision. “Why did the king have to receive the Vlaams Belang?” she said. “This is a racist and violent party and I think that the message given by the king is damaging.” She said his actions had “gone against the courage of democratic Flemish parties that say no to the Vlaams Belang”.

However, Rudi Vervoort, the departing Socialist minister-president of Brussels, said the king’s decision was understandable. “Certainly for me, it is not a pleasure to see this scene in Belgium. On the other hand, there is an electoral reality in Flanders that cannot be denied.”

Vlaams Belang gained the second largest share of the nationwide vote, taking 18 seats in the federal parliament, compared with three in 2014.

Since this latest breakthrough – named “black Sunday” by other parties – expectations had grown that the king would meet Vlaams Belang’s leader, 32-year-old Tom Van Grieken, who has helped soften the party’s image.

Arriving at the palace, Van Grieken said it was not a historic moment: “It is completely normal to invite a party that has won the elections.” He added: “I was pleased with the invitation … I am not going to say it is unnatural. This is natural. What happened over the past 40 years was not democratic.”

One mainstream party leader, Maxime Prévot, said seeing the Vlaams Belang leader pass through the palace gates “sends a shiver down my spine”, but added it was “difficult to blame the king given the results in the north of the country”.

The moderate separatist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has not ruled out a coalition with Vlaams Belang. The N-VA, a key pillar of the last government, retained its place as Belgium’s largest political party but lost votes to its far-right rival.

In 1936, King Leopold III met Léon Degrelle, the head of the fascist Rex party, which later collaborated in the Nazi occupation of Belgium.

Vlaams Belang has long argued for the abolition of the Belgian monarchy and also wants to stop “billions” of euros being transferred to the less prosperous Wallonia.

Marc Uyttendaele, a constitutional expert, suggested political parties were ultimately responsible for defending the cordon sanitaire against the far right. “It is not up to the king to break the cordon sanitaire, but political parties must assume their responsibilities,” he told Belgian’s Francophone state broadcaster, RTBF. “He [the king] must be neutral, above the fray, but he has within the framework of these discussions, a personal margin of action.”

The king also met the leader of the Belgian Workers’ party (PTB), a radical left party that came from nowhere to win 12 seats in parliament, thanks to a surge of support in Wallonia.

Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists on both sides of the linguistic divide all saw their vote shares decline.

Belgium’s political polarisation has raised fears of another long delay in forming a coalition, in a country that once went 541 days without a government.