There is, at least formally, a new government in Belgium. The political crisis is over, for the time being. The subject for this blog no longer exists. So we bring it here to an end. Or should we say: we just take a break?
The very fragile coalition that has been put together by Guy Verhofstadt for officialy no longer than three months, can break apart at any moment. The new crisis will then probably be worse than the one of the 192 past days. Or will the knowledge that it will be worse precisely temper all the political fights and disputes of the last months, after a few weeks of rest around Christmas and New year. Who knows?
What is wrong with Belgium? We explained the deeper roots of the nationality-crisis in the country and of the problems to form an orange-blue coalition before (7 september and 8 september:Old quarrel, new twist and 17 september: Is this the real life; is this just phantasy?). With the benefit of hindsight one can add a few things.
The direct cause of this crisis has no doubt been the decision of the Flemish christian democrats of CD&V to embrace Flemish nationalism. Formally this happened at the end of 2003 when the then opposition-leader Yves Leterme forged his cartel with the N-VA of Bart Dewever. CD&V, once the leading party of the country, had fallen to 21 % of the votes in Flanders in 2003, after thirty years of steady decline. The party knew for long it had an electoral reservoir in nationalism, but had not tapped in it for fear of being kicked out of the Belgian establishmet. After the Flemsh liberals had become the biggest party in 1999, they were kicked out. So they opened up Pandora’s box. And largely won the elections of June the 10th.
The N-VA, which is officialy separatist, has certainly contributed to the present crisis. At least twice in the negotiations it reacted negatively when the leader of the Walloon liberals, Didier Reynders, softened his positions on the nationality-issues. They failed to see the opportunity, or did not want to see it. And each time they took CD&V with them.
But the deeper cause of the crisis lies in the big differences in public opinion in the (Flemish) north and the (Walloon) south of the country. As there are no longer parties with a nationwide appeal – Flemish parties present themselves only in Flanders to voters, Walloon only in Wallony and Brussels – it becomes more and more difficult to form a dynamic government. The federal council of ministers looks more and more like a bilateral conference of delegates from two regions.
Flemish public opinion is divided fifty-fifty in left and right. Wallony has always been very left-wing. In Wallony Didier Reynders won the election of June the 10th, and for the first time since 1894 the socialists (PS) were no longer the biggest party in French-speaking Belgium. So Reynders thought he could lure the Walloon Christian democrats of CDH into a government without the socialists. It took six months to become obvious to everybody that CDH was too strongly linked wth the PS, and in fact a left-wing party. The party itself is not really clear about it, because it still has many right-wing voters in rural areas.
All this has led to a Belgian government in which the Flemish parties have formed a centre-right coalition and the Walloon a centre-left. The logical conclusion out of this is further devolution. But that is not as logical as it seems. Devolution means larger responsibilities for the regions. But Wallony and Brussels are still economically weaker than Flanders, and their royal social policy is largely financed through federal fiscal revenues.
Unemployment – which is unlimited in time in Belgium – is twice as high in Wallony than in Flanders. It is because of the perception in (centre-right and right-wing opinion in) Flanders that left-wing Walloon politicians will do nothing about it – trade unions pay the unemployment benefits and recruit tens of thousands of members through this system – that Flemish demands for devolution of employment policy has become one of the hottest issue in the nationality-disputes.
In the third government of Guy Verhofstadt CDH has now obtained the portfolio of … Employment Policy. It has designated Josly Piette for the post, who until two years ago was the leader of the Walloon wing of the largest, Christian trade union in the country. One can expect he will either try to soften the inevitable reform of the unemployment system to keep the damage for the unions as small as possible, or that he will obstruct it all along. In the latter case, do not bet a dime on Belgium’s future.