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.

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