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.

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