Wednesday, 5 December 2007

ON LOCATION: The decline and fall of Burgundy

Like each drama, the Belgian crisis is a long story of unusual events on many locations. But do not expect the normal elements of a nationality crisis like bloodshed, riots or huge demonstrations. Most of the scenery had to do with hotels, castles and restaurants. After all, Brussels was once the capital city of the dukes of Burgundy, who in the fifteenth century for more than 100 years lavishly spent their gold on painters like Van Eyck and Memling, the first polyfon musicians and the finest clothes in Europe. And above all they made a few dishes (boeuf bourguignon to name but one) and the wines of Burgundy world-famous. So follow us on a short sight-seeiing along the path of Belgiums crisis: 1. Discothèque Claridge, Place Madou, Saint-Josse, June the 10th

On the evening of election day this brandnew disco under the Madou Tower was hired (for at least 4000 euro) by the cartel of the Flemish christian democrat CD&V and the Flemish nationalist N-VA to celebrate an expected victory. It was a surprising choice for the normally rather dull party, but a celebration it was indeed. The cartel became by far the strongest formation in parliament and CD&V's leader Yves Leterme obtained a huge personal score of 800.000 votes. Flags with lions, the symbol of the Flemish region, were deployed in great numbers, causing a slight scare among many French-speaking Belgians who saw the images on tv.

2. Saint-Johns Hospital, Botanic Garden Lane 32, Brussels, June the 26th On June the 26th the 73 years old King Albert II fell in his palace in Brussels and was brought to the hospital of Saint John a few hundred meters from the Madou Tower. He received a new hip and had to stay for about ten days in the hospital. On his sickbed politician after politician came to visit him, as the first initiatives to form a new government had to be taken. Didier Reynders, the leader of the Walloon liberal MR, who had been designated informateur, came most of all and was frequently met by a few dozen camera's at the entrance of the hospital. 3. The cathedral of Saint-Gudule, center of Brussels, July the 21st As on each national day in Belgium, the 21 st of July started with mass in the greatest and oldest cathedral of Brussel, where five centuries ago the young Habsburg sovereign an later emperor Charles the fifth was crowned king of Spain. This time the newly appointed formateur Yves Leterme came to attend. At the entrance he was jokingly asked by a French-speaking tv-journalist if he could sing the national anthem in French. Leterme started to sing and seems not to have realised immediately that he was singing the Marseillaise, the national anthem of France. Certainly in the French-speaking media in Belgium, suspicions against him took a new twist. 4. The castle of Hertoginnedal, Oudergem on the southeastern outskirts of Brussels, July the 24th

When Yves Leterme started to negotiate a coalition of liberal and christian democrat parties, he took the whole crowd to the castle of Hertoginnedal. This was the place were a former prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, held his government meetings between 1992 and 1999 because there it was possible to keep the press at a distance of the discussions. Leterme hoped he could like Dehaene keep the inner secrets of the castle out of the media. But he overlooked one crucial detail: since then cell phones and PDA's have penetrated daily lives. And soon it became clear that negotiators inside were sending sms-messages and e-mails to the waiting journalist outside. The failure to keep the most delicate elements of the negotiations out of the press was one of the elements that led to Letermes first resignation on August the 24th.
5. Hotel Conrad, Avenue Louise, Brussels, August the 8th
In an attempt to flee the press at the gates of Hertoginnedal, Yves Leterme decided on August the 8th to trade places. He met with the presidents of the two Walloon parties, Jöëlle Milquet and Didier Reynders, at hotel Conrad, one of the most prestigious of Brussels. But to no use: Milquet was filmed with a paper with the heading of the hotel a few hours later, and at that moment the proposal Leterme presented to her at the hotel was already published on some websites. 6. The royal castle of Ciergnon, The Ardennes in Luxemburg-province, September the 29th
In the weekend of 29 and 30 September King Albert was taking some rest to recuperate from his hip operation in the castle of Ciergnon in the Ardennes. The castle is from 1842, and Albert lived there for almost four years as a young teenager during German occupation in World War II. But on this Saturday he received the visit of Herman Van Rompuy, the new president of the Lower House and a leading Flemish christian democrat. Four weeks before the king had appointed this 'wise man' to a role of 'scout' to bring the orange-blue parties back to the table after the first failure of Leterme. Van Rompuy came to report this Saturday afternoon that he had succeeded in reaching a limited agreement on the procedure to tackle the nationalistic issues in the negotiations. In the days afterwards some of the negotiators denied that there had been any agreement. But the king accepted the report. And in the evening, after sunset and in the rain, suddenly the car of Yves Leterme entered the gates of the castle. Slightly more than an hour later he was again formateur.
7. The stands of Standard Football Club de Liège, October the 27th
Building a government is a form of team-building. It did help in the negotiations that both Yves Leterme and MR-president Didier Reynders (the two most on the right) were fans of Lièges most famous football club, Standard, located right into the ancient industrial heart of the city at the Meuse. That might seem strange for Leterme, a Flemish citizen living about 200 kilometers from Liège, but he has a French father and Standard has many Flemish fans. Other negotiators attended too. From left to right: Melchior Wathelet from the Walloon christian democrats and from Verviers, 20 km east of Liège; Patrick Dewael, from the Flemish liberal VLD and from Tongeren, 15 km to the north of Liège; Inge Vervotte from Letermes CD&V and from Mechelen; and Bart Somers, the party president of the VLD and mayor of the Flemish city of Mechelen. Standard, the leader in the Belgian competition, played against KV Mechelen that evening. The game ended in a draw: 2-2.
8. The Law Street (Wetstraat - rue de la Loi), Brussels, November the 6th
The Brussels Law Street is the heart of political Belgium with parliament and the cabinet of the prime minister (not to mention the European Commission some 500 meters to the east). Most of the pictures of the Belgian crisis have inevitably been taken there. And of course spin doctors took all kind of initiatives to put their minister or party leader into an original picture pose (it is well known they stop their car beyond the corner to make a seemingly spontaneous walk towards the waiting camera's). The price for the most impressive scenery goes to the picture above, when the Flemish delegation leaders at the negotiations synchronised their walk in the Law Street (again after sunset) and came out of the darkness to stand as a united Flemish front shoulder to shoulder in forefront of the camera's before meeting the formateur. Something their Walloon counterparts never succeeded in (or may not have considered to do, of course). 9. The Commission of the Interior of the Lower House, The Europe-Room in the Palace of the Nation, Law Street, Brussels, November the 7th.
It looks like a normal voting scene in a normal parliament, but this image is forever (or at least for a couple of days) engraved into the minds of French-speaking politicians and many citizens as 'la giffle' (the slap in the face). For the first time in living memory the Flemish majority in parliament decided a question on a nationalistic issue - the division of the bilingual electoral district of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde - with a unilalteral vote, after the Walloon politicians had left the commission. Emotions went high that day, not the least because the extreme right and extreme Flemish nationalists of Vlaams Belang were sitting on the first row, apparently as a kind of vanguard of all Flemish politicians. But the discussions rapidly calmed down after everyone realized that it was only a commission-vote, and that specific constitutional procedures to protect the French-speaking minority of the country would enable the Walloons to delay a final vote on the issue for almost 18 months.
10. La branche d'Olivier, brasserie, Englandstreet 172, Uccle, a southern suburb of Brussels, November the 22th
After the vote in parliament on November the 7th it took 15 days before the Walloon politicians were ready to sit openly at the same table with their Flemish counterparts again. Meanwhile the king had appointed two mediators, Armand De Decker, the president of the Upper House, and again Herman Van Rompuy ,as mediators to help Yves Leterme. Dedecker, who lives in Uccle (Ukkel in Dutch), suggested one of his favourite restaurants around the corner to organise the meeting. And so the orange-blue negotiations took an umpteeth start that evening. The food seems to have been excellent, the discussions lasted till half past one, but a breakthrough was not in the cards.
11. Hof ter Vrijlegem, farm-hotel, Mollem, a Flemish village to the northwest of Brussels, November the 25th
Still in search for a discreet location to negotiate a final breakthrough in their never-ending negotiations, Yves Leterme and the four party-presidents of the orange-blue coalition made their way on Sunday - again after sunset - to the bucolic location of Mollem, only 20 kilometers from the Grand Market in Brussels. They met at Hof ter Vrijlegem, a farm turned into a small hotel (rooms from 70 € onwards) and with dining and meeting facilities. The diner-negotiation lasted beyond midnight. But at the end the participants left with a feeling that they finally had reached an agreement on a time-table for negotiations on constitutional reform.
12. Hotel Bristol, Avenue Louise, Brussels, November the 28th
The agreement (still with a few brackets of disagreement) of Sunday did not hold. On Monday evening - still after sunset - it was refuted by the Flemish nationalist N-VA, the cartel partner of Letermes CD&V. That party did not participate directly in the last negotiations, but was thought to be represented by CD&V-president Jo Vandeurzen. So there followed another night, on Wednesday, in another hotel. This time it was the Bristol, on the Avenue Louise again, but slightly less prestigious than the Conrad. Discussions were head-on, and although N-VA-president Bart Dewever again did not participate in the negotiations, he was present in a nearby room to be consulted whenever necessary. Nobody left before 3.30 p.m. And this time there was a feeling that final failure after 170 days was the most probable outcome. 13. The temporary party-headquarters of the Flemish christian democrats, Brussels road 806, Zellik, a suburban village on the westside of Brussels, December the 1st
Shortly before their election victory the Flemish christian democrats of Yves Leterme left their party headquarters in the Brussels Law Street 89. The building needed to be renovated. They were for a while in search of a good replacement, and finally found one at the local headquarters of their provincial party of Vlaams-Brabant in Zellik. The place soon was to appear almost every week on tv, because crucial meeting after crucial meeting took place. On Saturday the 1st December it was there that Yves Leterme was received at 4 p.m. after he had returned from Belvedere-castle where had handed down his resignation to the King. His fellow-partymen received their leader with applause and Leterme had a difficult emotional moment. But the applause could not hide that this was a dull room in a dull building on the dull old road from Brussels to Gent in a dull suburban village. The 800.000 votes of Yves Leterme were not turned into power. They seemed a distant memory, as far away as the one of The Claridge, the flashy disco under the Madou Tower on June the 10th.
14. Clos St.Denis, two stars restaurant, Vliermaal in Limburg-province between Hasselt and Liège, Sunday the 2nd of December.
As the christian democrats were still considering the reasons why they failed in their attempt to become the ever-leading party of Belgium again, the liberals decided it was their turn. The leaders of the Walloon MR and of the Flemish VLD met each other - of course after sunset - at restaurant Clos St.Denis to discuss how they could take the initiative. Among them, for the first time in months, was outgoing prime minister Guy Verhofstadt. He was received and sent out by King Albert the next day to inform him about an eventual way out of the crisis. With the liberals instead of the christian democrats in the driver's seat, a style-break was in the making. After all, the Clos StDenis is one of the finest restaurants of Belgium, with two stars in the Guide Michelin. Far more expensive of course than the farm-hotel of Yves Leterme, but probably also far more surprising than the dull luxury hotels of the Avenue Louise ...
Come and see ...

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