The king of Belgium met Tom Van Grieken, the leader of a far-right political movement, on Wednesday in the first meeting of its kind since the 1930s.
King Philippe, who is required to be politically neutral, has a significant constitutional role in the formation of Belgium’s government. He has also held talks with other party leaders following Sunday’s inconclusive national election, as the palace decides which political leader has the best chance of forming a government.
Van Grieken’s Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party, which has traditionally been shunned by mainstream parties, stunned Belgium by grabbing 18 seats in the federal parliament, coming second to the more moderate Flemish separatist N-VA party
“I don’t see why you are treating this as abnormal,” the 32-year-old Van Grieken told reporters on his arrival at the royal palace.
“It is the most normal thing in the world that the party that has won the election is invited to see the head of state.”
Politics in Belgium, a country of 11 million people, are sharply divided between the French-speaking Wallonia region, which tilted to the left in the weekend’s election, and the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, which saw a surge of separatist sentiment expressed in the poll. Following the 2010 general election, it took a world-record 541 days to form a national government.
“I answered the questions the king put to me,” Van Grieken said of the 20-minute meeting. “It was a pleasant, calm discussion.”
Philippe’s father Albert II and uncle Baudouin did not meet leaders of Flemish Interest or the similarly far-right Vlaams Blok, including in 2003 when Vlaams Blok also won 18 parliamentary seats.
In 1936, Philippe’s grandfather King Leopold III did receive Leon Degrelle, the founder of Rex, a party that subsequently collaborated with the occupying German Nazis during the Second World War.
Leopold III, who surrendered Belgian forces to the Germans, lived in exile after the war, faced opposition and a general strike when he returned to Belgium in 1950 and subsequently abdicated.