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.