Sunday, 12 October 2014

This is the end ...

Belgium has a new government, sworn in at the Royal Palace on Saturday. It represents, in any way, a big shake-up of much that was common sense up to now in Belgian politics. But with some luck – and dependant on the economic evolution of Europe and in Belgium – it could become a major step towards stabilizing a country that only three years ago looked poised for a break-up.

 Charles Michel, the leader of the French-speaking liberals, is the new prime minister of Belgium and at 38 the youngest one since 1832. He leads a coalition of three Flemish parties – the Flemish nationalist NVA, the Christian democratic CDV, and the liberal VLD – and only one French-speaking, his own, the MR. The latter commands only 20 out of the 63 deputies in the Lower House who speak French. But the coalition has 85 of the 150 seats, and the constitution does not prescribe to have  a majority in each language group of the country. Indeed, its only rule is that ‘each decision shall be taken by a majority of the votes’.

At the same time Mr. Michels party has seven ministers in a government of fourteen. This is because of the rules that over the last fourty years and throughout a process of institutional decentralisation have been introduced to protect the (French-speaking) minority of Belgium. One of these rules is that the council of ministers has to have as much French-speaking ministers as Dutch-speaking. Alas, a similar rule has never been introduced for the representation of women who, in the new cabinet, have only three ministers.

In many ways this is quite a peculiar government. Ruling without a majority of seats in one community has been done before, but usually with only one or two seats short of that majority. Now the gap is huge. Another big novelty is that for the first time the political representation in the federal government is for one (French-speaking) part of the country completely different of the representation in the regional government: MR versus the coalition of Christian democrats (CDH) and socialists (PS). This offers a clear-cut choice of two policies – not necessarily left versus right – but could also lead to much bickering, obstruction policies and institutional deadlock.

Quite peculiar, although not entirely new, is that the prime minister is not the leader of the biggest coalition partner. In this case – and by far – this would have been the Flemish nationalist party, with its leader Bart De Wever. But Mr. De Wever has explained why he prefers to stay as mayor of Antwerp, Flanders biggest city: because it was unthinkable for the MR, already vulnerable as the only French-speaking party, to accept the leadership of the same Flemish nationalists that were so strongly demonised by all French-speaking parties before the elections of last May.

It is for the same reason that it was as much necessary that the Flemish nationalists abandoned their institutional agenda – at least for the next five years – to give priority to their centre-right socio-economic aims, which are quite similar to that of the liberals. It is indeed the frustration of the large centre-right electorate in Flanders about twenty-five years of uninterrupted presence of the socialists in all governments, that ballooned the score of the nationalists since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008.

But all this is strong stuff. Here are the Flemish nationalists, still having separatism and an independent Flanders as their ultimate goal, showing extreme restraint to spare their French-speaking coalition partner and to bring some order – at least according to them – to the Belgian household. That paradox could be explained by the strategy of Mr. De Wever, keen on consolidating the huge gains his party made in the last few years. Nothing better for that than showing that he and his party are extremely reasonable people, so it seems. That does not necessarily mean that the separatist goal is abandoned, only that – like with all separatist parties in Europe, and before them with the Parti Quebecois in Canada – you put it solely on the agenda when you have a reasonable chance of succeeding.

The strategy of Mr. De Wever is in this moment probably aimed at the Flemish Christian democrats, whom he holds in an almost suffocating embrace. He already captured a large part of the former right wing electorate of this party – as he did with the Flemish liberals – but now wants definitely to replace CDV as the major and centre ground party in Flanders.

The CDV is not really happy in the coalition, because his left wing –  rooted in the Christian (and biggest) trade union in Belgium – does not like the budget cuts and reforms proposed. But it still hopes, by luring the nationalists into government responsibilities, to destroy their populist image and the electoral free-ride they enjoyed. The relation between these two will be worth to watch closely the next years.

The French-speaking liberals of Mr. Michel also take a huge risk with this coalition. Not for nothing is was first christened as the ‘kamikaze’-coalition by the French-speaking press. Applying a centre-right policy in a region – Wallonia certainly – that has always voted for left-wing policies, besides from a pronounced minority position in your own language group, looks indeed as quite a mission impossible.

But two elements could turn this improbability into a trump card. The first is the electoral victory of the MR in the last elections. Mr. Michel and his political friends are more and more convinced that Wallonia is on its way to genuine economic recovery and development,  and that it is only a matter of time before the eternal left-wing majority there, already crumbling by each new election, will finally disappear.

The second element are the constitutional protections for the linguistic minority in Belgium, such as the parity in the number of ministers, already mentioned. By being alone and in the minority, the MR is also protected against any demands for institutional change, as these, according to the constitution, require a majority in every language group. And again it was precisely their vulnerability towards French-speaking public opinion that made the MR obtain the prime ministership.

So this new coalition, due to its imbalance, has become a government where the coalition partners have to take into account the aspirations and aims of their partner across the language border more than ever before in the last four decades since devolution was started. It shall have to take the moral ground from a Belgian perspective, and to be quite more than the diplomatic conference between two communities it usually was up to now.

That is indeed strong stuff for the Flemish nationalists on board. It could in the best of all scenario’s even lure them into becoming a stabilizing element of the Belgian establishment instead of the despised outsider they were – and were treated as – for almost a century now. Or will they, if that is the evolution, prefer to break up a good government in due time instead?

Strangely  enough, the main opposition party – and the electoral mirror of the Flemish nationalists in the last electoral campaigns wherein they demonised and pushed up each other – is in the same situation. The Parti Socialiste – still the biggest party in Wallonia and Brussels – could indeed start to attack the party of Mr. Michel by claiming that it is constantly betraying the French-speaking citizens in this country, in a clearly undemocratic way.

But then it would have to pick up the cause of regionalism again, and in the end even separatism. It would do exactly what it had reproached – not without reason - to the Flemish nationalists. With a big difference: if the PS in the last decades was always an advocate of keeping Belgium together, this was because it wanted to preserve a unified social security, for which the contributions of the economically stronger Flanders were essential to keep it generous. In other words, by going for an opposition based on nationalists sentiments in the French-speaking part of Belgium, the PS could cut the branch on which it sits.

So it is the liberals who in the end have most achieved their strategic goals in the new government: both a centre-right economic policy, and a necessity to think far more than ever before in terms of a general Belgian interest instead of regional feelings. How fragile this new and surprising balance is, and how long it will last remains of course to be seen.

It will surely also depend on the economic evolution of Europe:  if that gets better, stability inside Belgium will ensue. If it continues to be bad or get worse, new breaches will open, as both Schotland has shown and Catalonia certainly will show. It is also a fact that the economic differences between Flanders and Wallonia are slowly diminishing, whereby the deeper foundation for the antagonism is melting away.  

With all this in mind this seems a good moment to put an end – provisional or definite - to this blog, that was opened with the big struggle of nationalities inside Belgium after the elections now seven years ago. The tables have shifted, and normalcy seems to return. At least for the moment.











Wednesday, 8 October 2014

A new kid in town

 This Saturday Belgium will have a new government, 139 days after the last elections.  That is only a quarter of the length it took last time, in 2010 and 2011. The new centre-right coalition is promising budget cuts and socio-economic reforms. And it will have the youngest prime minister in Belgian history.
 Twenty six hours of uninterrupted negotiations were needed, before on Tuesday the 7th the story broke, perfectly timed a few minutes before the evening news: four political parties – two liberal ones (MR and VLD), plus the Flemish nationalists (NVA) and the Flemish Christian democrats(CDV) - had reached an agreement to start a new federal government. The two co-formateurs, Kris Peeters and Charles Michel, came out of Parliament House to announce it, and made immediately clear that the latter, the 38-year old president of the French-speaking liberals of MR, would become the next prime minister.
The agreement was mainly about cuts and reforms. Contrary to what the previous government – with the socialists – promised to the ever-watching European Commission, Belgium will not reduce its annual budget deficit to zero in 2016, but two years later. The remarkable thing is that it was first the hard-line Flemish nationalists who proposed the move, and the other parties who picked it up. It is not sure the EU will agree, although overthere the discussion about right and wrong in economic policies is in full swing.
The decision has been taken, it is said, to create room for even more urgent reforms: the lowering of social charges paid by employers on wages (going on average from 33 % to 25 %), a tax shift away from charges on labour for a total value of about 1% of gdp, and a one-time general wage freeze next year diminishing salary charges with another amount nearing 0.7 % of gdp. One charge for employers is going slightly upwards: an extra month salary for employees who remain sick for more than one month. This last measure should reduce costs in the sickness insurance.
An unexpected breakthrough was achieved regarding retirement. The age is now fixed at 66 years from 2025 onwards and on 67 years from 2030. Almost all limits on working after retirement – and while keeping your pension – will be lifted. Further budget cuts will be made in the sickness insurance, but no more in unemployment.
The biggest budget cuts have to be obtained by not replacing two out of three of the vast number of officials who retire in the coming years. Some new taxes will be introduced, like a slight raise of the tax on stock market transactions, a further raise of taxes on diesel fuel, and a spectacular novelty: charges on fortunes that are transferred through companies towards countries that are labelled ‘fiscal paradises’. It is already called the Cayman-tax.
It is an ambitious programme for the first genuine centre-right government in Belgium in more than 25 years. Much will depend on the persons mr. Michel and his colleagues will choose as minister. And of course of the positioning of his own party as the only French-speaking one on board, representing only 20 out of the 63 French-speaking deputies in the federal parliament.