Belgian far-right leader in landmark audience with the king

International

Far-right leader and chairman of the Vlaams Belang Tom Van Grieken speaks during a media conference at the party headquarters in Brussels, Monday, May 27, 2019. Vlaams Belang was the biggest winner in the Belgian elections Sunday after it had been consistently shut out of coalitions over the past quarter century. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS (AP) — In a historic moment for the far-right in Belgium, King Philippe received the leader of the anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang party at the royal palace on Wednesday, the first time the party has been granted such an audience.

The meeting with Vlaams Belang president Tom Van Grieken marked a turning point for the party after it made huge gains in Belgium’s northern Flanders region in Sunday’s elections. The result looks set to complicate efforts to form a national government.

“I was pleased with the invitation,” Van Grieken told reporters outside the palace after the royal audience. But he played down the significance of the occasion, saying “I am not going to say it is unnatural. This is natural. What happened over the past 40 years was not democratic.”

As usual after elections, the king meets with party leaders to help ease coalition talks. But Belgian monarchs traditionally respect a “cordon sanitaire” — a symbolic political fence erected by mainstream parties to isolate Vlaams Belang.

After an audience with the king earlier Wednesday, one mainstream party leader from the French-speaking region of Wallonia, Maxime Prevot, said that “just the idea of seeing him (Van Grieken) arrive at the palace sends shivers down my spine.”

Far-right, anti-migrant and populist parties made significant gains in European Parliament elections across the 28-nation bloc last week. Those results were mostly expected, but Vlaams Belang’s performance in Belgium’s national and regional polls held in parallel stunned the country.

Belgium is split along linguistic lines, with Wallonia in the south and Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, and governments are invariably formed by coalitions made of parties from both regions.

In Sunday’s elections, Vlaams Belang — which backs independence for Flanders — won 17 seats in the 150-seat Flemish parliament, up from just three in 2014. That makes it the second-biggest party in Flanders, behind the nationalist N-VA party, which has 35 seats.

Belgium has been without an active government since December, when Prime Minister Charles Michel’s coalition fell apart. His support for the U.N. global migration pact sparked a walkout by the N-VA, pulling the rug from under his government.

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