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.

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