Friday, 9 November 2007

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…

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