Friday, 21 December 2007

End of a crisis, at least for a moment

There is, at least formally, a new government in Belgium. The political crisis is over, for the time being. The subject for this blog no longer exists. So we bring it here to an end. Or should we say: we just take a break?

The very fragile coalition that has been put together by Guy Verhofstadt for officialy no longer than three months, can break apart at any moment. The new crisis will then probably be worse than the one of the 192 past days. Or will the knowledge that it will be worse precisely temper all the political fights and disputes of the last months, after a few weeks of rest around Christmas and New year. Who knows?
What is wrong with Belgium? We explained the deeper roots of the nationality-crisis in the country and of the problems to form an orange-blue coalition before (7 september and 8 september:Old quarrel, new twist and 17 september: Is this the real life; is this just phantasy?). With the benefit of hindsight one can add a few things.
The direct cause of this crisis has no doubt been the decision of the Flemish christian democrats of CD&V to embrace Flemish nationalism. Formally this happened at the end of 2003 when the then opposition-leader Yves Leterme forged his cartel with the N-VA of Bart Dewever. CD&V, once the leading party of the country, had fallen to 21 % of the votes in Flanders in 2003, after thirty years of steady decline. The party knew for long it had an electoral reservoir in nationalism, but had not tapped in it for fear of being kicked out of the Belgian establishmet. After the Flemsh liberals had become the biggest party in 1999, they were kicked out. So they opened up Pandora’s box. And largely won the elections of June the 10th.
The N-VA, which is officialy separatist, has certainly contributed to the present crisis. At least twice in the negotiations it reacted negatively when the leader of the Walloon liberals, Didier Reynders, softened his positions on the nationality-issues. They failed to see the opportunity, or did not want to see it. And each time they took CD&V with them.
But the deeper cause of the crisis lies in the big differences in public opinion in the (Flemish) north and the (Walloon) south of the country. As there are no longer parties with a nationwide appeal – Flemish parties present themselves only in Flanders to voters, Walloon only in Wallony and Brussels – it becomes more and more difficult to form a dynamic government. The federal council of ministers looks more and more like a bilateral conference of delegates from two regions.
Flemish public opinion is divided fifty-fifty in left and right. Wallony has always been very left-wing. In Wallony Didier Reynders won the election of June the 10th, and for the first time since 1894 the socialists (PS) were no longer the biggest party in French-speaking Belgium. So Reynders thought he could lure the Walloon Christian democrats of CDH into a government without the socialists. It took six months to become obvious to everybody that CDH was too strongly linked wth the PS, and in fact a left-wing party. The party itself is not really clear about it, because it still has many right-wing voters in rural areas.
All this has led to a Belgian government in which the Flemish parties have formed a centre-right coalition and the Walloon a centre-left. The logical conclusion out of this is further devolution. But that is not as logical as it seems. Devolution means larger responsibilities for the regions. But Wallony and Brussels are still economically weaker than Flanders, and their royal social policy is largely financed through federal fiscal revenues.
Unemployment – which is unlimited in time in Belgium – is twice as high in Wallony than in Flanders. It is because of the perception in (centre-right and right-wing opinion in) Flanders that left-wing Walloon politicians will do nothing about it – trade unions pay the unemployment benefits and recruit tens of thousands of members through this system – that Flemish demands for devolution of employment policy has become one of the hottest issue in the nationality-disputes.
In the third government of Guy Verhofstadt CDH has now obtained the portfolio of … Employment Policy. It has designated Josly Piette for the post, who until two years ago was the leader of the Walloon wing of the largest, Christian trade union in the country. One can expect he will either try to soften the inevitable reform of the unemployment system to keep the damage for the unions as small as possible, or that he will obstruct it all along. In the latter case, do not bet a dime on Belgium’s future.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

At last, some kind of government

Outgoing prime minister Guy Verhofstadt (picture) succeeded at last, on Wednesday morning at 1.30 a.m., to form a new government in Belgium, 192 days after the elections of June the 10th. The new coalition of liberals, christian democrats and Walloon socialists, will start as a so-called ‘interim-government’ for three months.
Guy Verhofstadt received Joëlle Milquet, the leader of the Walloon Christian democrats (CDH) on Tuesday evening at his cabinet. Apparently he had succeeded before in convincing the Walloon liberals to lift their veto against the full participation of CDH in the new coalition. It seems Verhofstadt strengthened the position of MR-leader Didier Reynders in the new cabinet, by making him responsible for working out the social and economic policies for the next three years.
Milquet obtained a full minister, something she had not received when she announced her intention to go into opposition on Tuesday morning. The minister will almost certainly be Josly Piette, 64, the retired leader of the Walloon wing of the Christian trade union, the largest union in the country. He will hold the crucial portfolio of Employment Policy.
The five parties agreed that the new cabinet will have 14 ministers and no junior secretaries. The Flemish christian democrats of CD&V will have 4 mandates, the liberals of MR and VLD and the Walloon socialists (PS) each three, and CDH one. N-VA, the Flemish nationalist cartel-partner of CD&V, will stay out of the government, but announced it will give its support.
The Flemish liberal Guy Verhofstadt, who is prime minister since 1999, will stay in office until Easter next year. He should then be succeeded by Yves Leterme, the leader of CD&V. Leterme will now probably hold the portfolio of Institutional Reforms and will play as much a key role in preparing a full-blown government after Easter as Didier Reynders. After Easter he might be succeeded as minister of Institutional Reforms by N-VA-leader Bart De Wever.
There is, remarkably, not yet an official document with the agreements about what the interim-government should do. But on Thursday evening the political parties will hold congresses to see if the rank and file can agree. The government-Verhofstadt III should be sworn in at the royal palace on Friday morning and present itself to the Lower House that afternoon. A vote of confidence is expected on Sunday

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Power struggle in Wallony

The attempt of Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt to start a new cabinet after 191 days without government ran into trouble on Tuesday. A power struggle between the two main Walloon parties, the socialists and the liberals, made compromise almost impossible.
Verhofstadt met the four party presidents of the Flemish Christian democrats and liberals and of the Walloon socialists and liberals on Monday evening. After two hours of discussions it was obvious that one knot still had to be untied. The Walloon socialists demanded that the Walloon Christian democrats should be taken into the new government, officially to make the Walloon postion stronger. The Walloon liberal MR refused precisely a coalition with both the socialists and Christian democrats, fearing it would be marginalized in what it called a ‘left-wing block’.
On Tuesday morning the president of the Walloon Christian democrat CDH, Joëlle Milquet, went to see Verhofstadt. He seems to have informed her about the veto of the MR. Milquet immediately called together the leading figures of her party. Together they decided ‘that it would be more sane to stay out’. Milquet added that she was still prepared to support the new government on some issues, and remained ready to participate in it at some later moment.
` When Milquet and the CDH took their decision, the president of the Walloon socialist PS was still explaining on the radio that he definitely wanted the CDH to be part of the new government. In mid-afternoon the PS repeated this position in an official statement. It asked Verhofstadt ‘to make a last try to put the CDH into the government’. Otherwise ‘the PS would not be able to give its confidence to the new cabinet.’

Monday, 17 December 2007

From Christmas to Easter

King Albert II appointed on Monday afternoon the outgoing prime minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt (picture) to form and lead a provisional government until Easter. The government has to take themost urgently needed measures for the country. It will consist of the two liberal parties, the Flemish Christian democrats and the Walloon socialist, at least.
Verhofstadt, who had been sent out by the King two weeks ago – he was leading the former and now caretaking government until then – seemed to have arrived at a dead end last Wednesday. Interminal disputes among all parties were making every quick solution impossible. In the second half of the week the outgoing prime minister had to concentrate on the European summits in Lisbon and Brussels.
But on Sunday evening it was learned that he had invited the presidents of four parties to his official residence in Lambermont Street: Didier Reynders of the Walloon liberals, Bart Somers of the Flemish liberals, Jo Vandeurzen of the Flemish Christian democrats and Elio di Rupo of the Walloon socialists. Cameras registrated that a good meal was served.
The combination was new. It was the outgoing coalition without the Flemish socialist, but with the Flemish Christian democrats. That switch was not a surprise, because the former had repeatedly said they did want heal their wounds in the opposition after their disaster at the polls in June. In Flanders the orange-blue coalition remains in the cards.
The Walloon side was more surprising. PS-president di Rupo had repeatedly said he wanted all Walloon parties to enter the coalition because he wishes to make them all responsible for the grave decisions that will have to be taken about the future of the country. MR-president Reynders had continuously refused to enter into that game, because he feared being put totally into the minority against the three left wing parties in Wallony. Although both continued their bickering over the issue today, they took care not to shut the door for Verhofstadt and his proposal for a coalition.
Together these parties command 91 seats in the Lower House. They need 100 to pursue constitutional reform. But to work out this reform will be the task of Yves Leterme, his predecessor as formateur, Verhofstadt explained in a statement issued after his visit to the king. The outgoing prime minister said he would lead a caretaker government that will handle all urgent matters and will stay in power until March the 23th, Easter Day. The words ‘Provisional Government’ are carefully avoided, as this was the name used in 1830 by the revolutionaries who created Belgium.
Verhofstadt indicated that he would in three months hand over his prime ministership to Yves Leterme, if this one has achieved an agreement for a new coalition for the remaining three years by then. Clearly Leterme and Verhofstadt, the greatest rivals before the elections, have now made their deal.
But for the moment it remains unclear if MR and PS have already fully agreed and if the Walloon Christian democrats will immediately add their 10 seats to the 91 of the coalition or later. If these last mysteries would get solved Tuesday, the government Verhofstadt III might be into power before Christmas.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Still the same

The outgoing prime minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt, seems to have failed in his attempt to form quickly a caretaker government for a few months. He now has to concentrate his ‘information-mission’ on finding a way to start negotiations on constitutional reform.
Guy Verhofstadt, 54, was hailed as the saviour of the country by almost the whole of the Belgian press – in both Flanders and Wallony – the day after King Albert asked him to collect information about ways out of the crisis. All media noted that the christian democrats and their leader Yves Leterme were out, at least for the time being.
Verhofstadt consulted the presidents of all political parties – except for the extreme right Vlaams Belang – and the two assembly presidents on Tuesday and Wednesday. He seems to have proposed to some of them that the outgoing government of socialists and liberals should go before parliament and obtain the confidence. It would then work as a caretaker government, taking the most urgent budgetary and legal measures, for a few months. He did not mention if he would lead this government, but most of his guests assumed he would.
The proposal received mixed reactions. The Flemish socialists (SP.A) refused to play in that scenario, fearing it could still ultimately lead to an orange-blue coalition they surely did not want to give a helping hand. Their Walloon counterpart of the PS demanded an effective new government, consisting of all traditional parties: the liberals, Christian democrats and socialists. It could then push trough a reform of the constitution. Finally CD&V, the party of Leterme, vetoed the scenario as well.
Verhofstadt, who met Leterme on Wednesday evening in the well-known restaurant of the hostellerie Kemmelberg in Western-Flanders province(picture), is now obliged to find a procedure to discuss that constitutional reform and probably also a government that is sure a two third majority in parliament. All party leaders seem more and more to accept these two ideas. Previous scenario’s about a constitutional convention have meanwhile been abandoned.
But before constitutional reform can become reality, some other options will have to be decided. One is the question if the Walloon Christian democrats (CDH) should still be part of an enlarged government. MR-president Reynders now wants to keep them out, because he blames their president, Joëlle Milquet, for the failure of orange-blue. But the Walloon socialist leader Elio di Rupo has already said that he will not enter a government without the CDH.
The second question is who will lead this government. Yves Leterme said on Saturday he was still a candidate. But so are probably Didier Reynders, maybe Elio di Rupo, and – back again – Guy Verhofstadt.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

ON LOCATION: The decline and fall of Burgundy

Like each drama, the Belgian crisis is a long story of unusual events on many locations. But do not expect the normal elements of a nationality crisis like bloodshed, riots or huge demonstrations. Most of the scenery had to do with hotels, castles and restaurants. After all, Brussels was once the capital city of the dukes of Burgundy, who in the fifteenth century for more than 100 years lavishly spent their gold on painters like Van Eyck and Memling, the first polyfon musicians and the finest clothes in Europe. And above all they made a few dishes (boeuf bourguignon to name but one) and the wines of Burgundy world-famous. So follow us on a short sight-seeiing along the path of Belgiums crisis: 1. Discothèque Claridge, Place Madou, Saint-Josse, June the 10th

On the evening of election day this brandnew disco under the Madou Tower was hired (for at least 4000 euro) by the cartel of the Flemish christian democrat CD&V and the Flemish nationalist N-VA to celebrate an expected victory. It was a surprising choice for the normally rather dull party, but a celebration it was indeed. The cartel became by far the strongest formation in parliament and CD&V's leader Yves Leterme obtained a huge personal score of 800.000 votes. Flags with lions, the symbol of the Flemish region, were deployed in great numbers, causing a slight scare among many French-speaking Belgians who saw the images on tv.

2. Saint-Johns Hospital, Botanic Garden Lane 32, Brussels, June the 26th On June the 26th the 73 years old King Albert II fell in his palace in Brussels and was brought to the hospital of Saint John a few hundred meters from the Madou Tower. He received a new hip and had to stay for about ten days in the hospital. On his sickbed politician after politician came to visit him, as the first initiatives to form a new government had to be taken. Didier Reynders, the leader of the Walloon liberal MR, who had been designated informateur, came most of all and was frequently met by a few dozen camera's at the entrance of the hospital. 3. The cathedral of Saint-Gudule, center of Brussels, July the 21st As on each national day in Belgium, the 21 st of July started with mass in the greatest and oldest cathedral of Brussel, where five centuries ago the young Habsburg sovereign an later emperor Charles the fifth was crowned king of Spain. This time the newly appointed formateur Yves Leterme came to attend. At the entrance he was jokingly asked by a French-speaking tv-journalist if he could sing the national anthem in French. Leterme started to sing and seems not to have realised immediately that he was singing the Marseillaise, the national anthem of France. Certainly in the French-speaking media in Belgium, suspicions against him took a new twist. 4. The castle of Hertoginnedal, Oudergem on the southeastern outskirts of Brussels, July the 24th

When Yves Leterme started to negotiate a coalition of liberal and christian democrat parties, he took the whole crowd to the castle of Hertoginnedal. This was the place were a former prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, held his government meetings between 1992 and 1999 because there it was possible to keep the press at a distance of the discussions. Leterme hoped he could like Dehaene keep the inner secrets of the castle out of the media. But he overlooked one crucial detail: since then cell phones and PDA's have penetrated daily lives. And soon it became clear that negotiators inside were sending sms-messages and e-mails to the waiting journalist outside. The failure to keep the most delicate elements of the negotiations out of the press was one of the elements that led to Letermes first resignation on August the 24th.
5. Hotel Conrad, Avenue Louise, Brussels, August the 8th
In an attempt to flee the press at the gates of Hertoginnedal, Yves Leterme decided on August the 8th to trade places. He met with the presidents of the two Walloon parties, Jöëlle Milquet and Didier Reynders, at hotel Conrad, one of the most prestigious of Brussels. But to no use: Milquet was filmed with a paper with the heading of the hotel a few hours later, and at that moment the proposal Leterme presented to her at the hotel was already published on some websites. 6. The royal castle of Ciergnon, The Ardennes in Luxemburg-province, September the 29th
In the weekend of 29 and 30 September King Albert was taking some rest to recuperate from his hip operation in the castle of Ciergnon in the Ardennes. The castle is from 1842, and Albert lived there for almost four years as a young teenager during German occupation in World War II. But on this Saturday he received the visit of Herman Van Rompuy, the new president of the Lower House and a leading Flemish christian democrat. Four weeks before the king had appointed this 'wise man' to a role of 'scout' to bring the orange-blue parties back to the table after the first failure of Leterme. Van Rompuy came to report this Saturday afternoon that he had succeeded in reaching a limited agreement on the procedure to tackle the nationalistic issues in the negotiations. In the days afterwards some of the negotiators denied that there had been any agreement. But the king accepted the report. And in the evening, after sunset and in the rain, suddenly the car of Yves Leterme entered the gates of the castle. Slightly more than an hour later he was again formateur.
7. The stands of Standard Football Club de Liège, October the 27th
Building a government is a form of team-building. It did help in the negotiations that both Yves Leterme and MR-president Didier Reynders (the two most on the right) were fans of Lièges most famous football club, Standard, located right into the ancient industrial heart of the city at the Meuse. That might seem strange for Leterme, a Flemish citizen living about 200 kilometers from Liège, but he has a French father and Standard has many Flemish fans. Other negotiators attended too. From left to right: Melchior Wathelet from the Walloon christian democrats and from Verviers, 20 km east of Liège; Patrick Dewael, from the Flemish liberal VLD and from Tongeren, 15 km to the north of Liège; Inge Vervotte from Letermes CD&V and from Mechelen; and Bart Somers, the party president of the VLD and mayor of the Flemish city of Mechelen. Standard, the leader in the Belgian competition, played against KV Mechelen that evening. The game ended in a draw: 2-2.
8. The Law Street (Wetstraat - rue de la Loi), Brussels, November the 6th
The Brussels Law Street is the heart of political Belgium with parliament and the cabinet of the prime minister (not to mention the European Commission some 500 meters to the east). Most of the pictures of the Belgian crisis have inevitably been taken there. And of course spin doctors took all kind of initiatives to put their minister or party leader into an original picture pose (it is well known they stop their car beyond the corner to make a seemingly spontaneous walk towards the waiting camera's). The price for the most impressive scenery goes to the picture above, when the Flemish delegation leaders at the negotiations synchronised their walk in the Law Street (again after sunset) and came out of the darkness to stand as a united Flemish front shoulder to shoulder in forefront of the camera's before meeting the formateur. Something their Walloon counterparts never succeeded in (or may not have considered to do, of course). 9. The Commission of the Interior of the Lower House, The Europe-Room in the Palace of the Nation, Law Street, Brussels, November the 7th.
It looks like a normal voting scene in a normal parliament, but this image is forever (or at least for a couple of days) engraved into the minds of French-speaking politicians and many citizens as 'la giffle' (the slap in the face). For the first time in living memory the Flemish majority in parliament decided a question on a nationalistic issue - the division of the bilingual electoral district of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde - with a unilalteral vote, after the Walloon politicians had left the commission. Emotions went high that day, not the least because the extreme right and extreme Flemish nationalists of Vlaams Belang were sitting on the first row, apparently as a kind of vanguard of all Flemish politicians. But the discussions rapidly calmed down after everyone realized that it was only a commission-vote, and that specific constitutional procedures to protect the French-speaking minority of the country would enable the Walloons to delay a final vote on the issue for almost 18 months.
10. La branche d'Olivier, brasserie, Englandstreet 172, Uccle, a southern suburb of Brussels, November the 22th
After the vote in parliament on November the 7th it took 15 days before the Walloon politicians were ready to sit openly at the same table with their Flemish counterparts again. Meanwhile the king had appointed two mediators, Armand De Decker, the president of the Upper House, and again Herman Van Rompuy ,as mediators to help Yves Leterme. Dedecker, who lives in Uccle (Ukkel in Dutch), suggested one of his favourite restaurants around the corner to organise the meeting. And so the orange-blue negotiations took an umpteeth start that evening. The food seems to have been excellent, the discussions lasted till half past one, but a breakthrough was not in the cards.
11. Hof ter Vrijlegem, farm-hotel, Mollem, a Flemish village to the northwest of Brussels, November the 25th
Still in search for a discreet location to negotiate a final breakthrough in their never-ending negotiations, Yves Leterme and the four party-presidents of the orange-blue coalition made their way on Sunday - again after sunset - to the bucolic location of Mollem, only 20 kilometers from the Grand Market in Brussels. They met at Hof ter Vrijlegem, a farm turned into a small hotel (rooms from 70 € onwards) and with dining and meeting facilities. The diner-negotiation lasted beyond midnight. But at the end the participants left with a feeling that they finally had reached an agreement on a time-table for negotiations on constitutional reform.
12. Hotel Bristol, Avenue Louise, Brussels, November the 28th
The agreement (still with a few brackets of disagreement) of Sunday did not hold. On Monday evening - still after sunset - it was refuted by the Flemish nationalist N-VA, the cartel partner of Letermes CD&V. That party did not participate directly in the last negotiations, but was thought to be represented by CD&V-president Jo Vandeurzen. So there followed another night, on Wednesday, in another hotel. This time it was the Bristol, on the Avenue Louise again, but slightly less prestigious than the Conrad. Discussions were head-on, and although N-VA-president Bart Dewever again did not participate in the negotiations, he was present in a nearby room to be consulted whenever necessary. Nobody left before 3.30 p.m. And this time there was a feeling that final failure after 170 days was the most probable outcome. 13. The temporary party-headquarters of the Flemish christian democrats, Brussels road 806, Zellik, a suburban village on the westside of Brussels, December the 1st
Shortly before their election victory the Flemish christian democrats of Yves Leterme left their party headquarters in the Brussels Law Street 89. The building needed to be renovated. They were for a while in search of a good replacement, and finally found one at the local headquarters of their provincial party of Vlaams-Brabant in Zellik. The place soon was to appear almost every week on tv, because crucial meeting after crucial meeting took place. On Saturday the 1st December it was there that Yves Leterme was received at 4 p.m. after he had returned from Belvedere-castle where had handed down his resignation to the King. His fellow-partymen received their leader with applause and Leterme had a difficult emotional moment. But the applause could not hide that this was a dull room in a dull building on the dull old road from Brussels to Gent in a dull suburban village. The 800.000 votes of Yves Leterme were not turned into power. They seemed a distant memory, as far away as the one of The Claridge, the flashy disco under the Madou Tower on June the 10th.
14. Clos St.Denis, two stars restaurant, Vliermaal in Limburg-province between Hasselt and Liège, Sunday the 2nd of December.
As the christian democrats were still considering the reasons why they failed in their attempt to become the ever-leading party of Belgium again, the liberals decided it was their turn. The leaders of the Walloon MR and of the Flemish VLD met each other - of course after sunset - at restaurant Clos St.Denis to discuss how they could take the initiative. Among them, for the first time in months, was outgoing prime minister Guy Verhofstadt. He was received and sent out by King Albert the next day to inform him about an eventual way out of the crisis. With the liberals instead of the christian democrats in the driver's seat, a style-break was in the making. After all, the Clos StDenis is one of the finest restaurants of Belgium, with two stars in the Guide Michelin. Far more expensive of course than the farm-hotel of Yves Leterme, but probably also far more surprising than the dull luxury hotels of the Avenue Louise ...
Come and see ...

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Enter the prime minister

The outgoing prime minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt (picture), started Tuesday his consultations to seek a way out of the political crisis. In an unusual step king Albert asked him to do so the evening before.
Verhofstadt, prime minister of Belgium since 1999 and a Flemish liberal, was received by King Albert on Sunday and twice on Monday. The king seems to have consulted Didier Reynders, the president of the Walloon liberals on Saturday evening, shortly after the resignation of the Christian democratic formateur Yves Leterme.
According to some sources the leaders of the Flemish and Walloon liberals, including Verhofstadt and Reynders, met on Sunday evening in the restaurant Clos St-Denis – quoted with two stars in the latest edition of the Guide Michelin – in a village about twenty kilometers to the west of Maastricht. Their aim was to work out a strategy wherein the liberals should take over the initiative from the Flemish Christian democrats.
Verhofstadt seems himself to have hesitated to abandon the low profile he had kept since his election defeat on June the 10th. In his own party some resistance was heard against his return. But on Monday at 6 p.m. the palace issued a statement in which it said it ‘had asked prime minister Verhofstadt to inform the king on short notice how the present deadlock can be broken and to contact the necessary people to do so.’
Verhofstadt himself then read a statement to the press at 6.40 p.m. in the entrance hall of his cabinet. In it he said his mission was ‘ very temporary and limited’. His main task was ‘to start a process of constitutional reform’ and to ‘seek an outcome for some urgent issues’ in the economic field.
On Tuesday Verhofstadt met with the two assembly presidents, Herman Van Rompuy and Armand Dedecker, who have not been relieved of their mission by the King. He also consulted a series of party presidents.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

"A deep crisis of the regime"

After two full months of negotiations Yves Leterme, the strongman of the Flemish Christian democrats, handed Saturday afternoon for the second time his mission as formateur of the next government back to king Albert. On the 174th day without a government it is now obvious that Belgium is going through one of the worst political crises of its 177 years of existence.
Yves Leterme received this morning before the deadline of 9 a.m. the answers of three parties to the three questions he had asked about constitutional reform on Friday evening. The two Flemish parties, the Christian democrat CD&V and the liberal VLD, both answered yes to all questions. So did the Walloon liberal MR.
But as was to be expected, the Walloon Christian democrats of CDH did not comply. Their party president Joëlle Milquet issued a statement shortly before noon. In it she did not answer Letermes questions, but put up three of her own. Indirectly they made clear that her party opted for a threefold no. Milquet also reminded the fact that earlier this week she had agreed with a proposal of Leterme, but that it was his own cartel partner, the Flemish nationalist NVA who torpedoed that breakthrough.
Leterme went tot the royal palace of Belvedere at 2 p.m. He left after half an hour. The palace issued a short statement in which it confirmed that Leterme had resigned as formateur and that king Albert had accepted his resignation. The Ypres politician who obtained 800.000 personal votes in Flanders in the election of June – the second best score ever -, read a short statement to the press on his return to parliament.
He said he had done everything he could to form a stable government. He regretted he had not succeeded, and added that he was still prepared to cooperate to other attempts. At 5 p.m. he went to a hastily convened meeting of his party in Zellik near Brussels , where he was received as a hero. One of the leading figures of CD&V, the former Flemish minister Eric Van Rompuy, the younger brother of the president of the Lower House, nevertheless said to journalists that ‘we are facing a deep crisis of the regime".
Yves Leterme was a first time formateur between the middle of July and the end of August. After his first failure his party colleague Herman Van Rompuy was sent out as scout to bring the negotiators back to the table. Five weeks later, on the 29th of September, King Albert sent Leterme back into the field.
In the first comments on the events it was a foregone conclusion that attempts to form an orange-blue coalition are to be given up, after a record negotiation of 174 days. But it will probably take a few days before we know what comes next.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Seconds from disaster (part two)

Formateur Yves Leterme (picture: belga press agency) has made this evening what seems to be his last proposal of a procedure for constitutional reforms to the four parties of a possible orange-blue coalition. He wants an answer tomorrow in the morning. Leterme held the whole week long discreet negotiatons with his potential coalition partners, the Flemish and Walloon Christian democrats and liberals. He wanted to break the new deadlock that had arisen after the nationalist N-VA (allied in a cartel with the Flemish Christian democrats of Letermes own CD&V) had rejected another proposal for constitutional reform on Monday evening. The four party presidents and Leterme had a long meeting in the night from Wednesday to Thursday. This morning they were together again since 11:30 a.m. in one of the meeting rooms of the federal parliament. The two assembly presidents, Herman Van Rompuy and Armand De Decker, joined them. The atmosphere was said to be tense. The meeting broke up shortly before 6 p.m. Leterme issued a written statement. It soon became clear that the formateur, to satisfy the N-VA, had added three questions to his rejected proposal from last weekend. The first asked if all subjects were open for discussion inside the Convention and its Bureau that will have to prepare constitutional reform inside the parliament. In his second question Leterme asked if the regions should get the competence of introducing fiscal incentives for enterprises themselves instead of the federal government. And in the third one the formateur wanted to know if constitutional reform with a two third majority was enough, or that it should be achieved also by a (legally not necessary) simple majority of votes in each language group in parliament. For all three of the questions it was clear that the two Walloon parties would have the most difficulties to say yes. The third one could indeed be seen as an explicit demand for clarification towards Joëlle Milquet, the president of CDH, if she was ready to risk constitutional reform without the approval of the Walloon socialists of the PS, her coalition partner in the regional governments of Brussels and Wallony. Leterme gave all four parties time until 9 a.m. tomorrow to come up with answers that probably all should be yes. He has played his last card in what is no longer a negotiation, but a final game of political poker.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

No landing, no crash

For a few hours on Monday it looked like the orange-blue parties had finally reached an agreement about handling nationalistic issues under a new government. Then the Flemish nationalist N-VA decided that the last proposals of formateur Leterme were not enough. Yves Leterme, the two assembly presidents and the four party presidents of Flemish and Walloon Christian democrats and liberals met again on Sunday evening, in a restaurant in Asse, a Flemish village to the northeast of Brussels. Although afterwards no breakthrough was announced, there apparently was one. Leterme had presented a new detailed text about how to proceed with all nationalistic questions under the next orange-blue government. Some issues that need only a simple majority would be handled swiftly. Other reforms that need a two third majority – and therefore the support of some opposition parties – would be submitted to a parliamentary Convention (see Seconds from disaster). Leterme proposed a ‘menu’ of issues that could be discussed in the Convention. Among these, after long discussions, the possibility to introduce regional fiscal rebates. Not quite the fiscal autonomy the Flemish demanded, but not really the refusal of the Walloons to speak about the subject either. Above all it seemed a deadline was agreed on: constitutional reform would have to be at least partially successful towards the end of 2008. If not, the government agreement would become more or less invalid. If anything, this proposal made clear that an eventual orange-blue coalition will have to debate almost permanently about nationalistic issues, as the thorny issue of the electoral district of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde will also come back to the government table in a few months. Surprisingly both Walloon parties accepted Letermes scheme on Monday, followed, with only slight hesitation, by the Flemish liberals. The Flemish Christian democrats (CD&V), Letermes party, also nodded yes, although their president, Jo Vandeurzen, conceded it was mostly because party leaders are simply fed up with the never ending negotiations. The formateur himself went to King Albert at noon. All this made the spots turn towards the N-VA, the junior cartel-partner of CD&V, who held its party bureau on Monday evening, hours after the other ones. At the end its party president Bart De Wever (picture) in a somber mood announced that he had made up a list with a few bottlenecks on which he demanded clarifications from the formateur. Tuesday was a day of discreet talks in which everybody took care not to break the furniture. In the evening Leterme met the party presidents again in an unknown place around the parliament. He there seems to have proposed to discuss the budgetary questions again – to broaden the basket of possible compromises - and that meanwhile he would try to find a new way out of the deadlock on the nationalistic issues. But most of the party presidents around the table, clearly fed up with the discussions inside the cartel of CD&V and N-VA, demanded that the nationalistic issues should come first. Leterme accepted. So, after 170 days, come and see for another few weeks. At least.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Seconds from disaster

The landing of the negotiators of the orange-blue coalition has been postponed once again. Negotiations are shrouded in mystery, but the few indiscretions that get through augur ill. Such is the complexity of Belgian government negotiations that 167 days after the elections of June the 10th, two go-betweens – the assembly presidents Herman Van Rompuy (Flemish Christian democrat) and Armand De Decker (Brussels French-speaking liberal) - and an official formateur Yves Leterme are still trying to form a government. The link between the two missions is all but clear, but evidently the three do cooperate with each other. They met on Thursday evening, together with the four party-presidents, on the first floor of a local popular restaurant in Uccle, a quarter in southern Brussels were Armand De Decker lives. They succeeded in keeping the press at bay for a few hours. The aim was to put the final touch on an agreement on constitutional reform and other nationalistic issues, to pave the way at last for the formation of the new government. But although the discussions – and the meal – lasted till half past one, no agreement was obtained. Some of the participants were clearly annoyed the next day about the infinite disputes about text quotes and what they called the hesitations of Leterme. The main antagonism remains the one between the Walloon Christian democrats of CDH, and the Flemish nationalist of N-VA, the cartel partner of the Flemish Christian democrats (CD&V). The latter already agreed to evacuate most issues of constitutional reform to a special Convention of all political parties that will be put up in parliament. But it demanded this week that the next government will try to achieve at least one measure of devolution of a part of the social security. That demand has been vetoed by CDH-president Joëlle Milquet (picture) since the beginning of the negotiations in June. A week ago she seemed ready to make a small step towards devolution of fiscal policy – another taboo for her up to now – but after the new demands of N-VA, she repeated her refusal. Underneath this discussion lies the core of the Belgian crisis. More and more Flemish are fed up with paying huge sums of contributions for social security without seeing results, as the percentage of unemployed everywhere in Wallony and Brussels remains more than twice the number of Flanders, and even much higher than in the north of France. A large part of the Walloon political class fears radical budget cuts after devolution and therefore refuses to talk about it. Meanwhile the two assembly-presidents explained last week that they will set up a Convention of more than 50 prominent Belgian politicians, from federal as well as regional governments and parliaments, to discuss a new institutional framework for Belgium. It is understood that it will have a presidium – maybe all party-presidents – that will do most of the work. But towards the end of the week the main opposition party, the Walloon PS, let it be known that they would not actively participate, but wait for the proposals of an orange-blue coalition and then see. On Sunday it was not known what formateur Leterme would do next. He has not been reporting to the king since more than two weeks now. Quite logically, as he had nothing to report on.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Last call for orange-blue

Although officially negotiations are at a standstill, formateur Yves Leterme is discreetly trying to make a final attempt to form an orange-blue coalition. The next week might really be the decisive one. Two days after the latest nationalistic incident about three French-speaking mayors in three villages near Brussels that lie in the Flemish region, Didier Reynders, the leader of the Walloon liberal MR(picture), started to clear the deck for new negotiations. In newspaper and radio-interviews on Friday morning he said that if the Walloon parties in Belgium want to keep a federal state, they will have to accept that the institutions of the country change. Implicitly he definitely lifted the Walloon ‘non’ against further constitutional reform. At the same time he made clear he did not want to dramatize the situation in the three villages, although he insisted that the question of the nomination of the three mayors should be resolved. Later that day in the afternoon Reynders met all Walloon party presidents, including Elio di Rupo of the PS and Jean-Michel Javaux of Ecolo, to discuss a common Walloon approach about the nationalistic issues. Although the atmosphere of the talks was tense, to say the least, the four party presidents afterwards read a statement together. In it they did not say anything about global negotiations with the Flemish, but nevertheless asked for a negotiated solution about the electoral district of BHV. In between these events – and still more on Saturday - it was learned that formateur Yves Leterme, who seemed to have vanished at the beginning of the week, had become active again. According to some sources, he was trying to test a scenario in which at least one important element of constitutional reform would be written in the government agreement. The other issues would be mentioned, but would have to be worked out in the so-called ‘dialogue of communities’ of the two assembly-presidents. The crucial element would be fiscal autonomy. The Flemish region, which has a cash surplus, has been demanding for long more competences to introduce tax reductions. The present Finance Law, that regulates the financial mechanisms of federalism, allows that only marginally up to now. Leterme would propose that regions can introduce tax deductions, although not on corporate tax. The latter is a very sensitive issue for Walloon parties. In the government agreement the orange-blue coalition would accept that this reform should have to be voted by parliament before next summer. This means they will seek the support of some opposition parties to have the necessary two thirds majority. The Flemish parties and the MR were clearly engaged in this new approach of Leterme. Much doubts although remains about the Walloon Christian democrats, who have been taking very much a left-wing position during all the negotiations. They seem to remain linked to the Parti Socialiste with whom they govern the Walloon and Brussels regions. Friday, it was learned, CDH-president Joëlle Milquet had a long meeting with PS-president di Rupo to prepare together the meeting of all Walloon parties later that day. Milquet was not amused by the interviews of Reynders that morning. In it the liberal leader had also said that he had had the opportunity during negotiations to become the first Walloon Prime minister of Belgium since 35 years. But, he added, Milquet had preferred Yves Leterme for that role. Reynders seems to have accepted that he will not be the next prime minister. He still may reach two other goals he had during negotiations: a centre-right government without the PS and with only a little bit of constitutional reform. But again, as in the previous 161 days of government negotiations, it remains to be seen if Joëlle Milquet will say yes to his plans and schemes.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

A major row

Walloon parties reacted angrily on Thursday, after the Flemish minister of the Interior, Marino Keulen (Flemish liberal of the VLD), decided not to confirm the nomination of three French-speaking mayors in Flemish villages around Brussels. Meanwhile attempts continue to be made to start negotiations between Flemish and Walloon parties. Keulen (picture) announced his decision on Wednesday-evening. He said it was nothing but the application of the law. According to the Flemish minister, who legally has to confirm their designation by the local councils for all the majors in Flanders, the three candidates of the villages Kraainem, Linkebeek and Wezenbeek-Oppem, who were re-elected in October 2006, repeatedly had broken the law. They send invitations to their citizens for the elections in French in October 2006 and before federal elections in June 2007, and last month tried to hold their local council in the French language. The three mayors, all from the Brussels nationalist party FDF, rule Flemish villages with a majority of French-speaking citizens, were the administrative use of French is severly restricted. Keulen said yesterday that he received an administrative report of the governor of the province of Vlaams-Brabant, who proposed not to confirm the majors. This was not the case for two other mayors in villages with a French-speaking majority, whom he confirmed. The three contest the juridical argument by saying that the Constitutional Court allows the use of French in some cases. They received the support of FDF-president Olivier Maingain, who called Keulens decision ‘an attack on democracy’, and of the Brussels newspapers who wrote that it was ‘a new slap in the face’ of French-speaking Belgians after the vote in the Lower House last week. The presidents of the two French-speaking parties that try to form an orange-blue coalition regretted the decision, but seemed to be more muted in their reaction. Anyway, the incident complicates still more the task of the two presidents of the parliamentary assemblies, Herman Van Rompuy en Armand Dedecker. Both were confirmed in their mission to seek dialogue after king Albert tied up a series of consultations on Tuesday evening. The king asked them to report again ‘next week’. A small incident, whereby Dedecker, too eager to discuss his mission before a radio microphone, enflamed some Flemish politicians, was rapidly put to rest. Van Rompuy’s authority grows the more he remains silent. Yves Leterme is formally still formateur, although he has not been seen in public since last Sunday. The two French-speaking parties Thursday repeated that government negotiations are at a standstill as long as there is no discussion about the two latest Flemish decisions. Still there were persistent rumours that Leterme, together with Joëlle Milquet, is seeking a breakthrough on the nationalist issues, somewhere far away from all camera’s.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Another royal initiative

Boy, what a mess
King Albert II of Belgium for the first time in three months formally consulted the presidents of other parties than the liberals and Christian democrats. The deadlock on the nationalistic issues between Flemish and Walloon parties seems greater than ever. King Albert II received the presidents of both Flemish and Walloon greens and socialists on Monday in his palace in Laken near Brussels. This round of consultations was announced on Sunday late in the afternoon, after the King had received the presidents of the Lower and Upper house, Herman Van Rompuy (Flemish Christian democrat) and Armand Dedecker (French-speaking liberal). Both had consulted all parties on Saturday, as the King had asked them do to so two days earlier, to renew the dialogue between Flemish and Walloons. That the King took back this mission on Monday was largely explained as a sign that the consultations of the assembly-presidents had led to nothing. Indeed, all the four party presidents that were received at the palace on Monday, said they were unwilling to come to the rescue of the moribund orange-blue coalition. Although it must be said that the two Walloons, Elio di Rupo from the socialist PS and Jean-Michel Javaux of the green Ecolo, seemd to show more willingness than their Flemish counterparts to participate in an all-embracing dialogue between the two communities. Meanwhile Yves Leterme, still formateur, issued a statement on Monday noon to explain that he was negotiating with the orange-blue parties about the budgetary questions for the next government. Leterme was asked by the king on Thursday to form ‘quickly’ a new government, by concentrating his efforts on social and economic issues. A few hours later the two Walloon orange-blue party-presidents, Joëlle Milquet of the Christian democrat CDH and Didier Reynders of the liberal MR, flatly denied that they were negotiating. They repeated their demand that before the negotiations could be resumed there should be ‘un geste fort’ (a strong gesture) from the Flemish parties to show that they will no longer organize a vote of Flemish against Walloons like the one that took place last Wednesday in the commission of the Interior of the Lower House. The position of Yves Leterme seems more and more undermined. But if he succumbs it is likely the orange-blue coalition will go with him.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Who's turn to take a U-turn?

The royal intervention of Thursday in government negotiations in Belgium seems to have had only limited effect. The parties that officially still want to form an orange blue coalition, were pressed from all sides and once again infighting. ‘What a U-turn!’ was the almost unanimous tone of the articles in the Flemish newspapers Friday morning after the royal statement of Thursday afternoon. In venomous comments fingers were pointed to CD&V. Had not that party always sworn during the elections that it would not enter into a government if there was no agreement on constitutional reform? Now king Albert had evacuated the issue, away from the government negotiations, to entrust it to some mouldy committee of unnamed wise men. At the same time the indirect consequence of the vote of Flemish against Walloons on Wednesday in the Lower House, was that the other thorny nationalistic issue, the division of BHV, was buried in a parliamentary procedure that could take months if not years to reach an outcome. ‘CD&V prefers prime ministership above electoral promisses’ was one of the sharpest headlines in the Flemish newspaper De Standaard. It did not help that two Brussels newspapers, La Libre Belgique and Le Soir, published stories on Friday morning wherein they tried to prove that the whole crisis around the Lower house vote had been planned by formateur Leterme and maybe also by the Walloon party-leaders Didier Reynders en Joëlle Milquet, to break the deadlock in their negotiations. I In that version of events, Leterme concocted the plan with the Flemish party leaders on Tuesday evening as soon as al hopes to prevent a vote of Flemish against Walloons had disappeared. They designed a strategy to make the best of it, as the vote evacuated BHV away from government negotiations. Leterme would then have lured Reynders and Milquet into the plot on Thursday noon, by accepting to evacuate also constitutional reform. The whole menu was a few hours later presented to the King, who accepted to make a statement in that sense. The plot sounded like a perfect Belgian story: extremely pragmatic in the approach of the politicians, keeping up the peace for the time being, solving nothing and thoroughly surrealistic in the impression it left. ‘For once Yves Leterme had a plan that worked’, a unnamed leading Flemish politician would have said, according to La Libre Belgique. But the plan, if there ever was any, did not work yet. The story created turnmoil in the assembly of the French Community, that brings together French-speaking MP’s from the Brussels and Wallony region. It met on Friday afternoon to vote the calling of a conflict of intrest, a procedure to protect the Walloon minority against potential abuse of power of the Flemish majority in Belgium. The vote should have been a demonstration of Walloon unity against the Flemish power play of Wednesday. But the meeting turned into a nasty dispute when the socialists MP’s accused their liberal counterparts of treachery towards francophone interests, and the latter left the assembly hall. The liberal leader Didier Reynders evidently had already felt some of the heat, when he said on Thursday evening that he wanted an apology of the Flemish parties before he would start government negotiations again. That demand, together with the humiliating comments in the Flemish press, made nerves break inside CD&V on Friday morning. Its president, Jo Vandeurzen called for a press conference at noon, together with his cartel-colleague, N-VA-president Bart De Wever. ‘Let there be no doubt: we will not start to negotiate again if we don’t have first a guarantee that we will have constitutional reform’, said Vandeurzen, ‘and we do not see any reason for apologizing.’
‘This is not even a dialogue of deafs anymore, it is a mere flood of monologues’, said a commentator on RTBf-television on Friday evening. The weekend should bring the minds to rest again. Although on Saturday morning the two assembly-presidents that were designated by King Albert, Herman Van Rompuy and Armand De Decker, want to start their ‘dialogue of the communities'.

A royal intervention

King Albert II confirmed the Flemish Christian democrat Yves Leterme as formateur on Thursday afternoon. But he also proposed to let two assembly-presidents form a committee of so-called ‘wise men’ to discuss constitutional reform. First reactions were clearly more skeptical on the Flemish than on the Walloon side of the Belgian divide. The day was full of rather emotional Walloon reactions on the unilateral Flemish vote in the commission of the Interior of the Lower House Wednesday (see Crisis, it seems). Elio di Rupo, president of the Walloon socialists and the new opposition leader, said that the country was in a deep crisis and that a national conference of all responsible politicians – including himself of course – should be organised. King Albert did not invite di Rupo, but received, as had been announced, Yves Leterme at 14:15 in his Belvédere-palace in Laken on the outskirts of Brussels. The meeting lasted one and a half hour. Shortly after Leterme had left, the palace issued a statement. In it the king confirmed Leterme in his now five and a half weeks old mission as formateur. He asked him explicitly to bring together the four party presidents of the orange-blue coalition before the end of the week and to restart negotiations for a new federal government. This should be formed as soon as possible for the sake of ‘the well-being of all the citizens of the country, for the credibility of Belgium and for its necessary cohesion.’ At the same time the king announced that he himself would consult the presidents of the Lower and the Upper House before the end of the week. They are Herman van Rompuy, the elder statesman of the Flemish christian democrats and former royal scout earlier in this crisis, and Armand De Decker, a francophone Brussels liberal of the MR. The statement said that the king would ask the two presidents to form a committee of wise men ‘to start a dialogue about the further and balanced evolution of our institutions and the strengthening of the cohesion between the communities’. Both Didier Reynders, the president of the Walloon liberals, and Joëlle Milquet, his christian democrat colleague, immediately held press conferences to say they agreed with the royal proposals. But they added both that some days would be needed to heal the wounds in the Walloon minds after the vote on Wednesday. Elio di Rupo reacted by saying that he could accept the proposal if it indeed led to the kind of national conference as he had considered it, but not if it served only to prolong the life of a ‘moribund and disastrous’ attempt to form an orange-blue coalition. Much speculation went on about the question if the royal message was a rebuke for Yves Leterme – who was loudly criticized by many Walloon politicians for not having been able to prevent the vote in the commission – or on the contrary had been worked out by him, Van Rompuy, Reynders and the cabinet director of the king, Jacques van Ypersele. Upper House president Armand De Decker revealed that he had been contacted by the palace on Thursday morning. The Flemish liberals (VLD) and certainly the leading Flemish Christian democrats (CD&V) were in the first few hours nowhere to be found for comment. Only CD&V-vice-president Cathy Berx, being an expert in constitutional matters herself, was ready to say that she saw an opportunity for a real dialogue on the reform of Belgian institutions. As for the cartel partner of CD&V, the Flemish nationalists of N-VA, they let it be known that they wanted to hear more explanations before they would react. And that they would take some time to do so…

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Crisis, it seems

On the 150th day of government negotiations in Belgium, tensions rose to a new high. In a key vote in a commission of the Lower House on a proposal about the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde Wednesday, the Flemish parties used their numerical majority to push the Walloons aside. A break of four days in the negotiations for an orange-blue coalition should have brought rest in the minds, but the contrary happened: Joëlle Milquet (CDH) and Olivier Maingain (FDF-MR) gave interviews that, as could have been expected, ignited angry reactions in Flanders. Whereupon on Monday the party president of the Flemish Christian democrats, Jo Vandeurzen, sharpened his ultimatum: a solution on nationalistic issues should be in sight before the 7th of November. That day a vote was programmed in the commission of the Interior of the Lower House about Flemish proposals to divide the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. The proposals had been tabled during the summer, and discussions have been going on since early september. The commission-president, the Flemish Christian democrat Pieter de Crem, had up to now dampened down the enthusiasm of the Flemish opposition parties to submit the proposals to a vote. But after Jo Vandeurzen put up his ultimatum the first time last week, some leading Walloon politicians – especially FDF-leader Olivier Maingain – threatened to stop all negotiations, should the proposals be voted unilaterally in commission. Although it is very unusual for Belgian politics to have a vote of Flemish against Walloons, the threat of Maingain took many by surprise. Belgian constitution has many procedures to protect the Walloon minority in the country against the numerical majority of the Flemings. By using these procedures, Walloon parties can delay a final vote in the assembly for at least five months and probably even for one and a half year. On Tuesday formateur Leterme tabled four discussion-points to be taken into consideration in negotiations about BHV. Maingain almost immediately rejected these proposals, but MR-president Didier Reynders left the door open. In the evening all Flemish parties accepted Letermes approach. Then, on Wednesday noon, Reynders and his fellow-negotiator, CDH-president Joëlle Milquet, said they were ready to discuss about Letermes idea, provided the vote in commission would be postponed. The Flemish parties refused. At 14.30 the commission of the Lower House assembled. The Walloon MP’s almost immediately left the meeting. Half an hour later a proposal to divide BHV was accepted by all Flemish MP’s, except for Tine Vanderstraeten of the Greens, who abstained. Emotions were kept to a minimum on both sides after the vote. They were neither triumphant nor angry, contrary to the phone-in reactions on public radio in both Flanders and Wallony. Among leading Walloon politicians it could almost immediately be heard that they would not blow up the whole of the government negotiations, only the discussions on the nationalistic issues, at least for the time being. Later that evening formateur Leterme denied rumours that he was about to hand in his resignation when he would report to the King on Thursday morning. The talk of the town on Wednesday evening was about an emergency orange-blue cabinet that would handle all but the nationalistic issues. The latter would remain in suspension as long as the normal minority-protecting procedures about the BHV-proposals were not worn out. The idea was much welcomed among Walloon parties who did not want to negotiate about these issues anyway. But CD&V-leaders rejected it after a meeting of their party in Zellik Wednesday evening. They want constitutional reform to be part of the government program. And as the 151st night of the longest Belgian government crisis ever descended on Brussels, many observers were puzzled by an intriguing question: was that idea of an emergency-cabinet part of the plan long before the commission-vote or not? (Sorry that I was not able to bring all events immediately the last few days, but my PC crashed on Tuesday and is still out – I’m sending this from another computer, but without a picture this time)

Thursday, 1 November 2007

A break before the endgame

Yves Leterme: a welcome break
Negotiators for the orange-blue coalition are taking a break until Monday. Before they left for sometimes far-away destinations, they spinned that they had almost reached a government agreement. Except for the most controversial items. The Flemish Christian democratic formateur Yves Leterme and his fellow-negotiators from four parties (Flemish and Walloon Christian democrats and Flemish and Walloon liberals) left the parliament building at 2 a.m. this morning after another long day of negotiations. A few hours before, at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, a spokesman for Leterme had briefed the journalists waiting outside that there would be no general agreement that evening, mainly due to ‘technical reasons’. The formateur himself had raised expectations three days ago by announcing that he would try to reach an overall agreement on the 31st of October, except for the three hottest issues: the budget, the nationalistic themes, and the division of the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV). In the end the the eight and last chapter of so-called ‘less-controversial’ parts of the government agreement has probably developed into an hot issue on its own. The Flemish liberals proposed to put a limit in time to the unemployment benefits (Belgium being the only country in the world were such a limit does not exist). As the other three parties did not want to follow that path, an alternative was put on the table: to raise the benefits in the first few months of unemployment, but to reduce it more rapidly afterwards. Again it seems the greatest objections have been made by the Walloon Christian democrats (CDH) of Joëlle Milquet. Unemployment benefits in Belgium are paid out by the unions, who that way recruit a few hundred thousands members. And as unemployment in Wallony and Brussels is more than twice as large as it is in Flanders, it is also an issue with nationalistic undertones. The gap between north and south created the Flemish demand for decentralizing the employment policies.
In the last hours of the negotiations Wednesday night, another dispute arose about employment policy, again between VLD and CDH. Negotiators of the former party wanted to make interim-employment possible in ministries and government-agencies, but the latter objected to this. The matter remains unsolved. The negotiators now take a break for the long weekend of All Saints Day (November the 1st). Some of them, like the liberals Didier Reynders (Kenya) and Karel De Gucht (Tuscany) travel to places far away from Belgium. Formateur Leterme will continue to have informal contacts to prepare the final round of negotiations early next week. The two Flemish party presidents, Jo Vandeurzen (CD&V) en Bart Somers (VLD), have made the 7th of November a deadline to see clear if there is a will to make compromises on nationalistic issues and BHV (see Raising the stakes)The mood among the negotiators has no doubt improved the last few days, but no one risks a bet on the final success yet.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Raising the stakes

The presidents of the Flemish christian democrat and liberal parties have put what amounts to an ultimatum on the negotiating table for an orange blue coalition. Or haven’t they? While formateur Yves Leterme and the negotiators in the parliament building last week continued to give press conferences about new agreements on different policies for the next government, nationalist tensions were steadily on the rise. First there was the fall-out of the incidents last Monday in three Flemish villages with a Walloon majority in the council (see Preparations for the final clash). The Flemish minister of the Interior Marino Keulen on Wednesday in a debate in the Flemish parliament made clear that the new incidents would not help the three majors concerned in their attempts to have their re-election last year officially confirmed. The power to do so lies in the hands of the minister. Keulen had subjected the nomination procedure to an inquiry into the attempts of the majors in September 2006 not to follow the legally prescribed language procedures – they tried to use French - during the election process for the local councils. The warning of the minister provoked a new angry reaction from FDF-leader Olivier Maingain the next day. He said that he would not accept any compromise on nationalist questions as long as the majors have not been confirmed in their office. Maingains FDF is part of the MR of Didier Reynders. The latter refused to confirm the threat of Maingain, but did not want to condemn it either. On Thursday it became again clear that CDH-president Joëlle Milquet was on a collision course with her Flemish colleagues about more than one question in the negotiations. The liberal party president Bart Somers publicly denounced her tactics and demanded that formateur Leterme should take the nationalist issues back to the table, just to test if all the rest still made sense. He openly criticized Letermes working method as too slow. Somers’ attack on Milquet received more than plain support from Jo Vandeurzen (picture, by Bart Dewael), the party president of CD&V, Letermes party. Vandeurzen said that it should be clear before the 7th of November if negotiations can lead to a compromise about the nationalist questions. If not, his party would stop to use delaying tactics in the commission of the Interior of the Lower House, were a Flemish proposal to split the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde has been in discussion since early September. The Flemish MP’s have a majority in the Lower House, large enough to vote the proposal. But they have refrained from using it, as the Walloon parties had indeed threatened that such a one-sided decision would bring the end of all discussions about a new government. The next meeting of the commission is on the 7th of November. Vandeurzens threat, to which Somers adhered on Sunday, no doubt raises the stakes. But as there is, in the worst scenario, a commission vote on the 7th November, and not yet a decision of the plenary assembly of the Lower House, it remains to be seen if the Walloon parties will immediately switch off all lights. Pressure rises, cracks appear, but this could as well be a signal that there is enough hope that at some moment in the next days enough glue will be found to make an orange-blue coalition stick together.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Preparations for the final clash

In the last week negotiators of the orange-blue parties around formateur Yves Leterme added almost a chapter a day to the agreement for the next government. But as the end is nearing, tensions over the final hot issues start inevitably to rise again. To the outside world Leterme and his fellow-negotiators (see the picture, taken in one of the rooms of the parliament building)–with no longer only the party presidents but every day more and more people around the table – present themselves as a well-oiled machine with fresh new ideas for the first centre-right government in Belgium in twenty years. During the last week they wrote five new chapters of the government agreement. But nobody is in doubt that the harder choices still have to be debated: the growing budgetary deficit, health policy and certainly also unemployment. Whereafter the main nationalistic issues – constitutional reform and the division of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde, the largest electoral district in the country (see the core of the stalemate) – should be put upon the table. Three incidents in the last few days show that even the rather insignificant progress in the negotiations about these two questions since June the 10th remains extremely fragile. The first incident took place in the middle of last week, but remained a few days hidden for the media. During a meeting of the leaders of the Flemish cartel of the christian democratic and nationalist party (CD&V en N-VA) Bart Dewever, president of the N-VA had a head-on clash with former royal scout Herman Van Rompuy. He attacked the compromise the latter had made on the procedure for negotiations about the nationalistic issues. As Dewever accused Van Rompuy in general of making too much concessions to the Walloons, and the latter felt he was not fully supported by his own party, the ex-scout decided to quit the negotiation team of CD&V. In his typical style, he did not make too much press-noise about this. On Saturday Didier Reynders, the president of the Walloon MR, made some concessions towards the Flemish positions. In an in interview with the Flemish newspaper De Morgen he accepted to discuss about constitutional reform, and took a rather moderate position about the issue of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde. Flemish liberals and christian democrats reacted positively, but the N-VA, after an initial hesitation, rejected Reynders’ proposals as ‘nothing new’. More worrying still for the liberal party president was that the Brussels nationalist faction within his own ranks – the FDF of Brussels politician Olivier Maingain – decided to call for extraordinary communal councils in three villages around Brussel, and for discussions in the French language there. The three villages – Linkebeek, Kraainem and Wezenbeek-Oppem - are part of the Flemish region, but have a Walloon majority in their council. Language law forbids the usage of French during the council, and makes all decisions taken after a discussion and vote in that language invalid. The three councils took place on Monday evening. And in each of them a discussion in French was started, with the inevitable shouting and skirmishes between hot-headed Flemish and Walloons as a result. TV-camera’s were as much present as spectators. The most worrying aspect though was political. Few people now doubt that Maingain and his FDF are not really interested in a solution for BHV, as the tensions there have time and again fed their popularity. Rumours say that Yves Leterme wants to see clear in the possibility of a compromise on the nationalistic issues at the beginning of next week. From the first to the fourth of November a break in negotiations has been planned. The sixth of November will be the 149th day without a governement, a new record in Belgian political history.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Land in sight

Go, comrades, and conquer ...
After four months of hesitation, negotiations for an orange-blue coalition are finally getting into full swing. The socialist parties have settled for a new role as his majesty’s federal opposition. Formateur Yves Leterme and the four presidents of the christan democratic and liberal parties reached an agreement on a Justice and Police program for the new coalition shortly before midnight on Monday evening. Again the Walloon Christian democrats of the CDH had taken up more leftish positions than the other three parties, which caused the negotiations to last well into the night (see for an explanation: Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?). In the end the new chapter of the government program still has very much a centre-right content. The possibilities for judges to bring youngsters from 14 years and older who commit grave crimes to adult tribunals, have largely been enhanced. Judges will be allowed in some cases of strong criminality to put limits on procedures for an early release. And the new government wants to build new prison cells for 1500 detainees, and recruit 1350 extra policemen all over the country. On Tuesday afternoon Leterme started negotiations on a new chapter, about health policy. In the morning he had seen the Flemish party presidents, to speak with them for the first time about the nationalistic issues since he was named formateur again. He will do the same with the Walloon party chiefs tomorrow. Tensions have somewhat come down, since Letermes CD&V at least informally accepted the procedure-calendar about constitutional reform as it was written down by royal scout Herman van Rompuy at the end of September. Last weekend Bart De Wever, the president of N-VA, the Flemish nationalist cartel-partner of CD&V, followed the same line in a tv-interview. He said that for the split up of the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde – the other big thorny issue where nationalist views of Flemish and Walloons radically oppose each other – propably ‘a spoonful of sugar’ would be needed to make the Walloons accept. His comments were immediately greeted with protests about too much concessions, even from within the ranks of the N-VA itself. But although the nationalist issues remain a hard nut to crack, the general impression is that the four parties have taken the turn into the road towards a new coalition government. Some people now talk about a new cabinet – Leterme-Reynders - around half November. And speculations about who will be minister have started in the newspapers. The surest confirmation of all this came from the socialist parties, who have started to speak strong opposition language. The Flemish socialist minister Frank Vandenbroucke stressed in a newspaper article on Saturday that the Christian democrats of Leterme and the liberals of the VLD had definitely preferred a centre-right policy over the need to achieve constitutional reform. At a congress of his party in Liège on Sunday, Elio di Rupo, the president of the Walloon socialist,(picture) demanded ‘a territorial link’ between Wallony and Brussels. He so implicitly suggested that territorial gains for French-speaking Belgium should be made at the detriment of Flanders. It was the strongest nationalist stuff to be heard at a PS-congress in more than two decades.