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)

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