Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Laying a bridge over troubled water

Yves Leterme has started his second mission as formateur with the utmost caution. Not the least because the agreements his predecessor Herman Van Rompuy seemed to have achieved last weekend, fell apart less than two days later. At least about the form the new formateur has learned the lessons royal scout Van Rompuy teached during the month of his mission. Yves Leterme now keeps an almost absolute silence about his talks and acts, and has moved his office to the parliament building in the centre of Brussels. The building (picture Myriam Lemmens) has so many exits that no media should be able to keep a camera on them all the time. The by far the most popular politician in Flanders has started his second attempt to form a government – the first one failed at the end of August – with an apparently very slow pace. The aim is still to make a coalition of Christian democrats and liberals. Leterme took this week each of the four party presidents apart for a long discussion. And he started some negotiations about less troublesome subjects, like justice and social benefits.
The formateur may have good reasons to be cautious. Newspapers reported he was himself surprised when the king called him to Ciergnon on Saturday evenening to be appointed to make the final steps towards a government. The rumour has up to now not been denied by Leterme himself. Up to Saturday noon everybody believed that Van Rompuy’s mission had ended in failure. But on Sunday and Monday Joëlle Milquet, the president of the Walloon Christian democrats, trumpeted forth that she had an agreement with the scout about her demand that constitutional reforms that needed a two third majority would not be worked out before the start of the government. It was officially on this issue that Leterme had to abandon his first attempt as formateur six weeks ago.
But the other three party presidents were keen to say that no formal agreement was made between Van Rompuy and them, whatever Milquet may have believed. Reading between the lines one could detect that the agreement was probably tacitly accepted, but not formalized during the negotiations. Such remains the delicacy of forming the next Belgian government. Mr. Leterme has to start almost from scratch again. The crisis was Wednesday in its 115th day. The record of the length of a Belgian political crisis – 148 days in 1988 – will almost certainly be broken. There are surely enough fridges in the house of parliament to cool some champagne in expectation of the 6th of November.

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