Saturday, 29 September 2007

Back to July the 15th

Yves Leterme, the strongman of the Flemish christian democrats, has been appointed formateur again by king Albert this evening.
Leterme arrived at the royal castle of Ciergnon at 9.30 pm. One hour later the palace issued an official statement in which it was confirmed that the former chief minister of Flanders was designated to form the new government. The decision of the King was largely expected after royal scout Herman Van Rompuy terminated his mission to breack the deadlock in the negotations earlier in the day. Leterme, who will be 47 next week on Sunday, has already been formateur between July the 15th and August the 24th. Negotiations have not moved much forward since he had to accept the failure of his first mission.

Smoke!Smoke!But is it white?

Good news at last, high up in the Ardennes?
After exactly one month royal scout Herman Van Rompuy has terminated his mission. The official message from the royal palace suggests it was successful. But some doubts remain. Exactly one month after he was sent out, the sixty year old former deputy prime minister Herman Van Rompuy (CD&V) reported for the fifth and last time about his mission to king Albert II. For this he had to travel to the Ardennes-castle in Ciergnon (picture). The 73-year old king has moved to that location to get some of the rest his doctors prescribed him earlier this week. They did so after concluding that the recovery of a fall Albert made three months ago, and of the ensuing surgery, has not been appropriate. The last few days Van Rompuy had turned on the heat on the four parties that should become an orange-blue coalition. He had put a complicated scheme of gradual negotiations on constitutional reform on the table, and besides made clear that whatever the outcome of the discussions, he would quit at the end of the week. That pressure brought for the first time in more than a month the four party presidents (Jo Vandeurzen for CD&V, Bart Somers for VLD, Didier Reynders for MR and Joëlle Milquet for CDH) around the negotiation table. One meeting, on Thursday evening, lasted even till 4 a.m. From indiscretions afterwards it nevertheless appeared that the progress made, if any, was rather scanty. It was therefore a great surprise that the royal palace, after Van Rompuy had left Ciergnon Saturday afternoon, issued a message in which it was said ‘that there are enough elements of convergence to allow the negotiations to be resumed.’ As the only mission of the royal scout one month ago was to break the deadlock in the negotiations, Van Rompuy asked to be relieved of his task. The king abided. The official message that was sent out from Ciergnon at 5:30 pm stated that a new formateur could now be appointed. According to some sources in the early evening, Yves Leterme, who in August preceded Van Rompuy as chief-negotiator, was already en route from his home town Ypres to the Ardennes. But as none of the party leaders concerned were ready to comment the latest developments, the journalists remained puzzled. Some speculated that Van Rompuy had only wanted to keep up the appearances, and offered a poisonous gift to his own party-leader after CD&V had put up the most resistance against his proposals in the last few days. Others thought Van Rompuy would continue to play a leading role in the negotiations that will come. Sunday should bring more information. Although not from Van Rompuy, who wants to remain as silent as during his whole mission.The only message that came out from the scout himself Saturday was that he would not give any interview the next fortnight.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Breakthrough, or the end of the road?

The mission of royal scout Herman Van Rompuy is nearing its end. With a last round of poker he wants to force an ultimate breakthrough.

Van Rompuy spoke more to the public during one hour as a guest lecturer at the University of Ghent Tuesday (picture) morning than during previous 27 days of his mission. But he was careful to avoid any hint about the cards he keeps in his hands.

On Monday the royal scout had reported for the fourth time to king Albert. Afterwards the palace announced that Van Rompuy was going to bring in his final report later in the week.

Up to then it seemed that the scout had made almost no progress since he was sent out on August the 29th. But after the Flemish liberal party president Bart Somers unveiled some inside information about the discussions of the past weeks to his party bureau Monday morning, the press soon got wind of it.

So it was learned that Van Rompuy had put quite a sophisticated scheme of gradual constitutional reform on the table, as a midway to the Flemish demand for a comprehensive reform and the Walloon refusal to speak about it. Flemish party leaders had apparently also made some creative proposals to break the deadlock about the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV).

Also on Monday Didier Reynders, the president of the Walloon liberals, showed some willingness to compromise, by proclaiming that he insisted on a referendum to fix the language border between the bilingual area of Brussels and the unilingual region of Flanders.

With so much indications of what might be a willingness to compromise – although Joelle Milquet of the Walloon Christian democrats again upheld a deafening silence in the choir of creative-thinking – Van Rompuy no longer hesitated. He let his spokesman confirm that he would bring the four party presidents of the orange blue coalition together again for the first time in more than a month, in an ultimate attempt to force a breakthrough.

This will probably happen Wednesday. In the best case the scout will a few days later give in his mission with good news for the king, and pass the file to his successor with the knots untied. In the worst case it will be up to king Albert to do some very creative thinking.

Friday, 21 September 2007

The sound of silence

I hope Mr. Van Rompuy overthere is bringing me some good news at last (King Albert II, on the right)

The moment of truth is nearing for royal scout Herman Van Rompuy. But probably not yet for Belgium.

Monday it will be exactly one month since Herman Van Rompuy’s predecessor Yves Leterme abandoned his attempt to form a new Belgian government. Monday the royal scout will report for the fourth time to King Albert since he started his mission on August the 29th.

As in the previous weeks Van Rompuy kept an almost complete radio-silence on his discussions with party leaders. What filtered out was that he continued to work on an orange-blue coalition, that he negotiated with Flemish an Walloon delegations apart, and that his efforts still centered on removing the stumbling blocks of nationalistic antagonism.

The only intriguing news this week was a press leak that indicated that Van Rompuy was trying to evacuate the demand, from his own party, for a constitutional reform. For such a reform the new government needs a two third majority in parliament, which the orange-blue coalition would not have.

The scout seems to have tested the idea of a commission of elder statesman from all major parties that would have to make proposals for such a reform. The new government would then start without waiting for the conclusions of the commission. The fact that the proposal was immediately leaked indicated that at least one of the parties was eager to kill it.

Van Rompuy is certainly aware of the fact that his time is running out. His spokesman – a sparingly speaking spokesmen - did not deny that negotiations would go on this weekend. That is usually a sign that the next days could be crucial and will decide if the scout fails of succeeds.

If it is failure that awaits Van Rompuy, Belgium probably still will not break-up immediately. The country itself is remarkably quiet about the crisis. For the moment only foreign correspondents and opinion polls - in Belgium notoriously unreliable - see a steadily rising fever all over the nation.

Among the Belgians themselves many people think that all this seems to prove that modern society can do for many weeks without a proper government. Economists praise the euro, and tell the media that twenty years ago the Belgian franc would already have suffered severe downwards pressures from the currency markets. That big stick to hurry up the politicians is no longer available.

After Van Rompuy the king can still send the Walloon socialist leader Elio di Rupo out to search for an alternative for the orange-blue coalition. If he fails, the conclusion will inevitably be that no government can be set up. But even then, and except for a major incident, the mood in the country will probably not be that heated that leaders of the major Flemish parties will start to demand independence for Flanders. The emergency-brake would then be to call the people back to the polls, with the future of Belgium as the one and only issue.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Background: is this the real life, is this just phantasy?

Tomorrow a hundred days will have gone by since the elections of June the 10th in Belgium, and negotiations for the formation of a new government have still not really started. But how worrying, how deep is the Belgian crisis? Since a few weeks foreign correspondents in Brussels – there are a few thousands of them, mainly to cover the European commission and parliament – have started to file stories about the break-up of their host-country. But oddly enough, in the 177 year old nation that seems to fall apart, no bloodshed, no riots, no protest are to be reported. Not even a demonstration larger than the usual twenty nationalistic hotheads. How real then is this story? The political stalemate in the country is unprecedented, but few people let their sleep over it. Some passionate arguments about Flemish and Walloons filters through in the newspapers, but the television-talkshows still think the subject will not make them cash in more viewers. In search for an explanation many commentators call for the late surrealist and Brussels painter René Magritte: ceci n’est pas une crise. But there are serious analysts too who defend the thesis that all the nationalistic rhetoric is nothing but a cover-up for personal ambitions or ideological preferences that have to be hidden, at least for the moment. For personal ambitions they look to Didier Reynders, the leader of the Walloon liberals (picture: the man in the middle). He is still minister of Finance in the outgoing government and a shrewd politician from Liège who would love to become the first Walloon prime minister of the country in 34 years. Analysts who see in this ambition the linchpin of the crisis point to the provocative comments that Reynders uttered each time the Walloon christian democrats were about to give in. In that way he torpedoed every chance of success of the main candidate for prime ministership, Yves Leterme, during the forty days that the latter was formateur. No, no, other analysts say. This is above all an old Belgian story. Each time a governement of christian democrats and liberals is made possible by the electorate, the union wing of both the socialists and the christian democrats will do everything to impede it. This happened in 1977, 1987 and 1992, and is happening now again. Look to the behaviour of the Walloon christian democrats, says the argument, who are refusing every compromise on the nationalistic issue. And they will probably continue to do so until the other parties accept that the Walloon socialists are invited to the negotiating table. For this latter thesis exists a Flemish variation. Ever since the introduction of universal suffrage there has always been a strong majority of the left in Wallony. In Flanders it was usual centre-right majorities that the electorate turned out, sometimes interrupted by moves to the centre-left. Since the national parties have split in Flemish and Walloon wings in the nineteen seventies every formation of a federal government has therefore been a match of armwristing: shall the coalition be centre-right (good for Flemish voters) or centre-left (good for Walloon voters). For 27 of the last 35 years this resulted in centre-left federal governments. When between 1981 and 1987 a centre right government came into power to tackle an extreme budgettary crisis, it was highly popular in Flanders and extremely unpopular in Wallony. The result was that the Walloon socialist, then in the opposition, rose to almost 50 % of the Walloon votes in 1987. The Walloon christian democrats made the government fall after only two of the four years in its second term, formally on a nationalistic issue. There is also a third analysis about the present crisis. This one is mainly to be heard in Walloon media. In this scenario the villain is Bart de Wever, the president of the Flemish nationalist N-VA(picture: the man on the left: the man on the right is the president of his cartel partner CD&V, Jo Vandeurzen). This rather small party formed a cartel with the CD&V of Yves Leterme. Together they became stronger than apart, and in an orange-blue majority the five or six seats the N-VA obtained on June the 10th are needed to obtain a majority in parliament. Now, say the analysts, de Wever is an advocate of Flemish independence – he acknowledged many times that this will be the outcome of history – so it is logic that he defends his nationalistic demands so sharply as to prevent a compromise and bring his ultimate goal nearer. De Wever, by the way, denies. The future will show whatever analysis was the right one. But all of these theses demonstrate again that the nationalistic issue only becomes a political hot spot when it gets mixed with other themes. But the reverse is also true: if it should be true that the politicians play the nationalitic card to hide some more trivial political ambitions, they never are fully sure how long they ride tiger and when the tiger starts to ride them. The breaking-up of countries has never been a simple rational affair, and, although everything is still remarkably quiet in Belgium, in the present stalemate and uncertainty every unexpected or even stupid incident can start a process that nobody will be able to control.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Orchestrated manoeuvres (2)

Royal scout Herman Van Rompuy was Friday once more invited to push his own party leader Yves Leterme gradually aside. But the latter received unexpected help from an adversary.

Flemish and Walloon newspapers Friday brought the story that both Walloon parties and the Flemish Liberal VLD had Thursday proposed to Van Rompuy that he restarted the negotiations on social-economic issues, as the discussions on the nationalistic issues are getting nowhere.

This rather strange idea – as Van Rompuy does not advance on the heart of the matter, give him new competences on other subjects – was rapidly defused by Jo Vandeurzen, the party president of the Flemish Christian democrats (CD&V). He did not object explicitly, but reminded everybody that Van Rompuy’s task was in the first place to break the deadlock in the negotiations. He added that CD&V would not enter a government where Yves Leterme is not a prime minister.

The proposal to enlarge Van Rompuy’s task was largely seen as another manoeuvre to bring some damage on the position of Leterme, especially from the Walloon parties. On Friday noon the besieged former formateur received unexpected help from the minister of Foreign Affairs in the outgoing government, the Flemish liberal Karel De Gucht (picture belga). He warned the Walloon parties ‘that they should not think that they have a kind of veto-right on Flemish candidates for the function of prime minister’. Asked why he came to the rescue of Leterme, who is a political adversary, De Gucht said: ‘I want to fight him next election as a rival, not as a martyr.’

This new round of Belgian politique politicienne learned in the first place that Van Rompuy’s attempts to bring Flemish and Walloons around the table to discuss their conflict, has got nowhere after more than two weeks.

And again a leading French Christian democrat threw some light on what may be the deeper cause. Jean-Jacques Viseur, a former minister of Finance who is now mayor of Wallony’s largest city Charleroi, said in a speech on Friday that ‘it is not only imprudent, but plainly wrong to keep a great Walloon party or the regional governments out of the negotiations’. He clearly meant the Walloon socialists of the PS.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Anyone who speaks Belgian?

The governor of the National Bank of Belgium, the ever softly speaking Guy Quaden, warned Thursday in an interview with the newspapers De Tijd and l’Echo that the long duration of the political crisis could affect the economy of the country. Only a government can take up the budgetary measures needed this and next year to confront the cost of the graying of the population, he said. And how long can Belgium remain the champion of the European cause, Quaden asked, if it does not succeed in keeping together only two cultures.

The warning was lost in the noise over a typical Belgian political incident. While royal scout Herman Van Rompuy seems to have imposed absolute radio-silence to his negotiation-partners, M. Leterme, the strongman of Van Rompuy’s Flemish christian democratic party CD&V, thought it possible to give a benign interview to Karrewiet, the youth news of the Flemish public broadcast Ketnet (picture).

To illustrate to the kids how compromises can be made however he used the example of an agreement a few years ago whereby Flemish parties accepted the demand from the Walloons to lower taxes on the building of new schools. Some Flemish journalist heard about the story Wednesday before it was broadcasted. They concluded that Leterme, as a gesture of goodwill, was proposing new money to the ever cash-stricken Walloon education department.

Then they called on Walloon politicians for a reaction. As Leterme, who obtained a monster-score in Flanders in the elections on June the 10th, is very unpopular in Wallony, these reactions were largely negative. ‘M. Leterme is portraying us, Walloons, in front of children as beggars’, said Marie Arena, the Walloon education minister. ‘He should better keep his mouth shut’, pointedly remarked Joëlle Milquet, a christian democrat leader like Leterme, but from the Walloon party.

On Thursday morning the Leterme-incident was front page-news in most of the Walloon newspapers, and the subject of bitter editorials. It learned, once again, that the Belgian dispute is also a matter of misunderstandings through communication in different languages (and probably bad journalism as well). And it proved that the nerves of the Belgian politicians are more and more put to the test.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Orchestrated manoeuvres in the dark

Still no clues are filtering out of the negotiations that royal scout Herman Van Rompuy is holding. But some of the sideshows are worth mentioning.
On the 12th day of his mission and the 93th day since the elections of June the 10th, details about the attempts of royal scout Herman Van Rompuy to form a Belgian government are still very sketchy. On Monday he reported to King Albert, but neither he, nor the palace communicated about what was said. What is known is that Van Rompuy works alone, and that he spoke eye to eye to individual political leaders until Monday-evening. On Tuesday he started negotiating with small delegations, meeting Flemish politicians from the liberal VLD an the Christian democratic CD&V in the morning, and their Walloon counterparts in the afternoon. Quite interesting was that the French-speaking media at the end of last week started to suggest that Van Rompuy, a Flemish Christian democrat, could be a prime minister who is much more acceptable to the Walloon parties than the strongman of his own party, Yves Leterme. The formal president of that party (CD&V), Jo Vandeurzen, immediately had to calm down some suspicions in his own party bureau on Monday morning. Leterme had a very bad press in the south of the country, during his failed attempt in July and August to form the government. French-speaking media accused him of being too Flemish-biased to take up the implicitly neutral position of prime minister of Belgium.

Also on Monday some new frictions filtered out between the Walloon liberals of the MR and the Walloon christian democrats of CDH. Didier Reynders, the MR-president, said in an interview that Van Rompuy had in the first place to sort out the differences between Flemish and Walloon christian democrats. This provoked a written statement from CDH-president Joëlle Milquet after her party bureau, wherein she repeated that the first ambition of the first party in Wallony – she meant the MR – should be to take the lead of a united front of Walloons.

On Monday for the first time since its creation as a separate assembly in 1995 the parliament of the Flemish region was almost overwhelmed by the international media, with Catalans and Basks in the forefront. The reason was that the parliament interrupted its still ongoing holiday to hear an interpellation from Filip Dewinter about the independence of Flanders. Dewinter (picture: during a tumultuous demonstration against islam in Brussels on tuesday) is the leader of the parliamentary party of the extreme-right Vlaams Belang, the former Vlaams Blok, since 2004 the largest section in the Flemish parliament.

Dewinter pressed Kris Peeters, the new chief minister who succeeded Yves Leterme at the end of June, to prepare a referendum on independence for Flanders, because the formation of a federal government had ended in a stalemate. Peeters, the three coalition partners in his government and the Green opposition, all rejected Dewinters proposal, although they stressed that the French-speaking parties should urgently give up their refusal to discuss further devolution. The international media took the message that the Flemish revolution is not yet in the making.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Old quarrel, new twist (2): a short history of the conflict between Flemish and Walloon conflict (background)

The language conflict in Belgium seemed almost solved around 1990. But the growing economic gap between Flanders and Wallony added new fire to the nationalistic tensions.

In 1989 for the first time long and difficult negotiations were held about dividing parts of the national treasury into regional ones. This led the then chief-minister of Flanders to say that ‘Belgium is a country with two different economic speeds.’ Around 1970 Flanders, backward and mainly agricultural in the 19th century, had surpassed Wallony in economic strength. The former now obtained most of the foreign investments, whereas the latter had steadily declined since the high-days of its textile, steel and coal-industries around 1900.

Just as old the language-conflict was about to be solved, this growing economic split gave a new twist to the legacy of nationalist tensions. In a first reaction to the decline of their region, around 1970, the dominant socialists in Wallony under the leadership of André Cools had decided to cooperate in the process of devolution. They were driven by the belief that they could follow their own socialist path towards recovery without further intervention from Brussels. A quarter of a century later, with unemployment above 20 % and still rising, this proved to be an illusion. It ended in corruption scandals, clientelism and the murder in 1991 of Cools just outside the appartment of his mistress in Liege (picture by Gerard Guissard of the murdered Cools on July the 18th 1991).

Gradually the Walloon politicians gave up on devolution.

Their own success, the strains of a long budgetary crisis between 1980 and 1995 and no doubt also some arrogance about their economic achievements, made the Flemish grow increasingly impatient about the inability of Walloon politicians to clean up their mess. The idea of breaking Flanders apart from Belgium was absurd as long as the late Soviet Union held more than a million soldiers at 400 kilometers of the Belgian border. But it became a debatable issue among Dutch-speaking politicians and journalists in 1992, when nationalist tensions inside Belgium were running high again and Czechoslovakia broke up peacefully. Flemish independence was picked up as a demand by the extreme-right party of Vlaams Blok, which won votes in each election from 1985 onwards – mainly riding on the immigration-issue - to reach a peak of 24 % in the whole of Flanders in regional elections in 2004.

The situation has not much changed since 1990. The recovery of Wallony is still too weak to keep unemployment under 15 %. Last year the Walloon socialists were rocked by another huge scandal in the main Walloon city of Charleroi. Meanwhile they also succeeded in raising the level of unemployment in Brussels to 20 %, largely by stimulating the immigration of tens of thousands unskilled immigrants from North and black Africa. Due to the high level of the minimum wage, no official work is available for them.

Impatience in Flanders grew year by year stronger and resulted in ever-sharper demands for devolution. But this Flemish radicalization, combined with a homegrown sentiment of despair, confirmed both the Walloon population and the politicians in their stubbornness to refuse every form of new constitutional reforms. Surely, the antagonism is far from general, and in both communities many contest the wisdom of putting politics in a one-dimensional nationalist perspective. Nevertheless the 6 million Dutch-speaking and 4 million French-speaking Belgians have never been as much apart as today.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Old quarrel, new twist (1): a short history of the conflict between Flemish and Walloons (background) ,

Language incidents on the territory of what is today Belgium have existed at least since the middle Ages. But the nationality-conflict between Flemish and Walloons, as it unfolds today, is not much more than a century old.

Belgium as in independent state came into existence in 1830 after its territory had been a military vacuum and the most intricate diplomatic headache of Western Europe for almost 200 years (picture: fighting between revolutionaries and the regular army at the Royal square in Brussels in September 1830). But between 1848 and 1914 it was one of the most successful nations on earth, with the second industrial economy after Britain and successive liberal governments (even when they were from the catholic party). The ruling bourgeois class spoke French, as the self-evident language of civilization, in the same way as the bourgeois and intellectual elite of the cities in Bohemia and Poland spoke German. (for a more detailed history of the country, see the official website of the Belgian authorities).

Universal suffrage, introduced in 1893, brought the whole population into politics. It laid bare that sixty percent of the Belgians spoke Dutch, and by far the largest part of them only Dutch. Social and language emancipation henceforth went hand in hand in Flanders, and created a powerful nationalist movement.

Gradually, and never without resistance of the Walloon politicians, it saw its demands realized. Towards 1930 the principle was accepted that the country would, more or less like Switzerland, be divided in monolingual administrative units, with Dutch as the official language of the northern provinces of the country, and French of the south. Only the capital Brussels would remain bilingual.

This reform was almost completed after a formal language border was drawn in 1963 (one exception being the area around Brussels: see the previous background-article about the disputes at the heart of the stalemate). In a side effect with far-reaching consequences, all the national parties split up into Flemish and Walloon sections that rapidly estranged from each other. Henceforth each of these parties appealed to the electorate in only half the country.

In 1970 a devolution-process was started, through arduous negotiations and constitutional reforms. It led to the creation of three regional governments – in Flanders, Wallony and Brussels – but with a different structure for culture, health and education, where you had Dutch-speaking, French-speaking and German-speaking areas and governments. After education, public works, media policy, large parts of economic policy and the supervision of local authorities also became regional competences, this highly complicated structure with far too many political mandates to distribute, nevertheless succeeded in reducing nationalistic tensions.

Friday, 7 September 2007

All quiet on the Belgian front

The British weekly The Economist might have given up on Belgium, but royal scout Herman Van Rompuy is still trying to bring together a federal government.

The Economist let the bells toll on Belgium Friday. It must have been more than a generation ago that the weekly chose the country as the subject of its second leader, but it sure was to announce its obituary. States are not eternal, the editors said, and it does not make sense to keep them alive at the price of bad government. They seemed to have no doubt that the latter is the case today in Belgium, largely due to the disputes between Flemings and Walloons.

For the moment Herman Van Rompuy (picture) does not agree. The royal scout, who was sent out by King Albert eight days ago, continues to search for a way out of the stalemate. And though the media do not like it, for the moment he succeeds in working in almost complete discretion.

After his failure in the beginning of the week to lure the greens, he seems to have tried the option of bringing the Walloon socialist of the PS at the negotiating table. With them the coalition of liberals and christian democrats would have 101 seats of the 150 in the Lower House, the necessary two third majority to change the constitution.

Van Rompuy's attempt was immediately cut short by Didier Reynders, the president of the Walloon liberals (MR). Reynders party is for the first time since 1893 greater than the socialists in Wallony, and he would like to consolidate this position by keeping them out of the perks of power.

So Van Rompuy tried some new proposals, still about an orange-blue coalition, towards the end of the week. Details did not filter out. But the outgoing minister of Foreign Affairs, Karel De Gucht, a Flemish liberal, stressed Friday that ‘the scout should not hesitate to take as much time as he thinks necessary.’

At the headquarters of the Walloon liberal and Christian democratic parties remarks where heard about the fact that the scout is a far better negotiator than the real leader of his party, Yves Leterme, and might be more acceptable as a prime minister for the French-speaking population of Belgium. Leterme is considered to be ‘too Flemish’ by all the Walloon politicians and media. This might just be the reason why he took a monster-score in Flanders in the last elections.

But even with more confidence in Van Rompuy at both headquarters, its chances of success still were estimated to be no higher than fifty-fifty. That the Economist should be wrong is yet not proven

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Background: the core of the stalemate

What are the issues that have hampered the formation of a new Belgian government for now almost three months? Two disputes seem almost unsolvable.

The central issue is how much devolution Belgium can swallow without becoming itself irrelevant as a state, and where the financial responsibilities in this process of devolution lie. A smaller, but more thorny question is where the last stroke of the now 44 years old language-border between Flanders, Wallony and the bilingual city-region of Brussels should be drawn.

The core of the Belgian conflict today is a real collision of minds. The Flemish parties want the 37 years old process of devolution of the country to continue, the more, the better. Their Walloon counterparts refuse even to discuss the issue.

Differing interests are at stake. The main demand of the Flemish is that each of the three regions should become responsible for its own employment policy. By extension this could – but should not necessarily - mean that wage policy (yes, Belgium still does have a national wage policy) and unemployment benefits would also be decentralized.

With a weaker economy and an unemployment level more than twice as high as in Flanders, the leaders of both the Brussels and Walloon region (picture by Philipp Melke : the still very much decrepit former steel-and-coal city of Seraing in Wallony) refuse to debate the issue. Even an implicit promise of the Flemish christian democrat leader Yves Leterme in July that Flanders did want to leave solidarity intact – Belgium-speak for: will continue to subsidise Walloon and Brussels unemployment – could not change their minds. And inevitably this discussion raises nationalist fevers that go far beyond the original issue.

The other stumbling-block is the question of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. That is the largest electoral district of Belgium, with almost 15 % of the total population in it. It consists of both the bilingual region of Brussels and the arrondissement of Halle-Vilvoorde. The latter is officialy a Flemish administrative unit, but it has many French-speaking citizens and even a few villages where Walloon parties make up the majority in the village council.

Through the one large electoral district the French-speaking political big shots of Brussels can mobilize French-speaking voters in Halle-Vilvoorde. The Flemish parties say that in order to win these votes the Brussels politicians make promises about the possibility to continue to use French in an unrestricted way, even when one lives in the Flemish part of the country. Halle-Vilvoorde has been officially Dutch since in 1963 an administrative language-border in Belgium was created to separate villages and cities with Dutch as official language from the ones using French. But this principle is constantly undermined as French-speaking families in Brussels leave the centre of the capital by thousands to buy their own house on the cheaper grounds of the Flemish villages around the capital.

The question of dividing the electoral district remained largely unsolved through a bad compromise in 1963. And although nowadays along most of the language border there are no more conflicts between Dutch- and French-speaking citizens, there are still six villages around the Brussels region where tensions sometimes run high. Hundred years ago these six were rural Flemish villages, but today at least three of them are ruled by French-speaking maiors and aldermen.

In practice the disputes are over the languages of local schools and libraries, the number of French or Dutch tv-stations on cable-tv, the language used in ambulances and hospitals and so on. Add to this a high degree of nationalistic rethoric on both sides, that was enflamed again by a ruling of the Constitional Court in 2003 on an electoral reform law, and one understands why this local problem has become one of the most hotly debated issues in Belgium.

About none of these thorny questions even the slightest progress has been made in the 87 days of government negotiations since the elections of June the 10th. And one should keep in mind that these nationality-questions always get intermingled with ideological ones.

In that sense it became clear during the negotiatons that the Walloon liberals of the MR were less radical in their refusal to speak about devolution than the Walloon christian democrats of CDH. The former are ready to accept some restrictions on Belgiums very generous unemployment benefits, but would rather see these imposed through decisions of the federal government than through a proces of devolution.

CDH, who is more left than right and is in a coalition with the socialists in the Walloon region, does not want to speak about either of these measures. It is, in Belgian politics and certainly in center-parties like the christian democrats, not uncommon to mask an ideological choice with a strong nationalist stance. One should never dismiss the interpretation that CDH just took the hard line on the nationality-questions to avoid saying explicitly that it dislikes a coalition with the liberals.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Greens not to the rescue

Only half a day after the Walloon greens showed a slight willingness to negotiate a paricipation in the new Belgian government, the idea seems to have been buried. The Walloon liberals reacted first and rather positively. ‘If a party puts some demands on the table before accepting to negotiate, it shows its willingness to negotiate’, said Didier Reynders, president of the MR.

But the two christian democrat parties were not so pleased. ‘By putting up two demands, difficult to realise, about two other parties, Ecolo declined for the time being to defend its program inside a government’, concluded Joëlle Milquet, the president of the CDH. As for the Flemish christian democrats (CD&V), their president, Jo Vandeurzen, said that the proposal of Ecolo to keep the N-VA out of the negotiations ‘could not be taken seriously’. N-VA is the nationalist cartel partner of CD&V.

The president of the Flemish green party Groen, Vera Dua, (picture) meanwhile explained that she was not consulted by Ecolo about an eventual participation in a government. Dua indicated that her party did not want to enter in a centre right government, certainly not while the socialist party is in the opposition.

Royal scout Herman Van Rompuy reported about his mission to king Albert in the Belvédère-palace in Brussels on Monday evening. Afterwards he had again separate discussions with the four party presidents of the christian democrat and liberal parties. His spokesman told the media that Van Rompuy would not brief them for the time being.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Greens to the rescue

The party bureau of the Walloon green party Ecolo showed its willingness today to negotiate a participation in the new government. It thus confirmed that the attempt to form a purely orange-blue government is gradually given up.

Scout Herman Van Rompuy had met Jean-Michel Javaux, (picture)the federal secretary of Ecolo (Greens don’t have party presidents), last Friday. Today – on Monday morning the party bureaus of all parties meet in Belgium - the party bureau of Ecolo apparently debated about what Van Rompuy and Javaux had discussed.

After the meeting Javaux said to journalists that ‘Ecolo does not exclude a participation in the government’. But he added that ‘we have a problem with the N-VA’. N-VA is the cartel partner of the Flemish christian democrats. Javaux did not explicitly say that he wanted the N-VA to stay out of the negotiations, but stressed that ‘without it there would be a better balance inside the coalition.’

He also pointed out that Ecolo would not participate without the Flemish greens (Groen), and without an elaborate social and ecological program for the new government. He revealed that, faced with these conditions, Van Rompuy Friday replied to him by saying: ‘you are not making my task easier.’

An orange-blue coalition of christian democrats and liberals would have 81 seats in the Lower House, five more than the simple majority. With the 8 seats of Ecolo and the four of Groen this would add up to 93. This is still short of a two third majority of 100 seats, needed for constitutional reform. But the Flemish socialists, with 14 seats, have indicated a willingless, on certain conditions, to approve constitutional reform from the banks of the opposition.

When the formation attempts of Yves Leterme collapsed on August the 24th, many commentators said this was becauce the French christian democrats (CDH) did not want to enter into a centre right government without being covered on their left flank. This would have been the main reason why their leader, Joëlle Milquet, took a hard line on the nationality-issues. Milquet denied this. CDH is in a coalition with the socialist PS in the regional government of Wallony.

Background: the elections of June the 10th

Parliamentary elections were held in Belgium on June the 10th after the coalition of (Flemish and Walloon) liberal and socialists parties under prime minister Guy Verhofstadt (Flemish Liberal, or Open VLD) almost finished its term of four years.

To understand the elections you have to know that Flemish parties almost exclusively present candidates in the Flemish districts and Brussels, and the Walloon parties in Wallony and Brussels. So when it is said that e.g. the cartel of CD&V and N-VA gained 3,8 % of the votes in the election, this is in fact 3,8 % of the Flemish votes. On a national scale – but that is paradoxically a statistic that almost nobody uses in Belgium during national elections – the 3,8 % are only 2,2 %. To see the real national results of the parties, see the website of the Lower House.

The big winner on June the 10th was the cartel of the Flemish christian democrats (CD&V) and the Flemish nationalists (N-VA). They gained 8 seats in the Lower House to become the largest fraction. The other winner on the Flemish side was the Lijst Dedecker, an new list that obtained 5 seats and 6,5 % of the votes in Flanders. Jean-Marie Dedecker is the former coach of the very succesful Belgian judo team, and almost became a president of the liberal VLD in 2004 before he was thrown out of the party for being too rightist two years later. Both the extreme-right Vlaams Belang and the Greens won slightly in votes, although the former lost one seat. The losers of the elections were the government parties: the liberal Open VLD (renaimed so after the defenestration of Dedecker) of the prime minister lost 7 seats, the cartel of socialists and left-wing nationalists (SP.A-spirit) under Johan Vande Lanotte 9. Especially the last disastrous result was not foreseen by the polls.

In the French-speaking part of Belgium (Wallony and 88 % of the Brussels electorate) the liberal MR won 2,7 % but lost a seat due to the electoral system. Psychologically far more important was the fact that for the first time since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1893 the socialists (led by the chief minister of Wallony Elio di Rupo) were no longer the biggest party of Wallony. They lost 6,9 % of the votes and 8 seats. The biggest winner in fact where the greens of Ecolo, who won 5.4 % and 4 seats. The christian democrats of CDH (+ 0,5 %) progressed slightly, whereas the extreme-right FN stagnated on a level of 5,6 % of the votes.

Perception is of course as important as the real results on election day. And so the succes of the main christian democratic candidate, the chief-minister of Flanders Yves Leterme, was seen as the fruit of his alliance with the nationalist, who used to be bitter rivals of the CD&V in the past. On the Walloon side the relative succes of the MR was the more remarkable as its main candidate Didier Reynders had broken with a tradition among Walloon parties not to criticize to harshly the socialists during campaigning, as they would inevitably be the power-brokers after the election. But the socialist fell through the ice, both in Wallony and Flanders, a fact that brought to an end all speculations about a coalition of christian democrats and socialist, that had been expected on the basis of the opinion polls.

The only possible coalition with two political ‘families’ (a political ‘family’ means: the two political parties of the same ideological tendency on both sides of the language border) on June the 11th seemed to be one of the christian democrats and the liberals (having 81 of the 150 seats of the Lower House). And it was generally expected that Yves Leterme, who received 800.000 votes, the second largest score ever, on the Senate List covering the whole of Flanders, was to become the new prime minister.

85 days of political crisis in Belgium

I’m starting this blog in an attempt to explain to people abroad (and in my best English) why my country, Belgium, is going through one of its most difficult political crisis ever. After parliamentary elections on June the 10th king Albert II charged, as is usual, a leading poltician with the task of forming a new government. Up to four politician have been sent out since then. Didier Reynders (49), leader of the French-speaking liberals (MR) and still minister of Finance in the outgoing previous government of Guy Verhofstadt, was made informateur (the word is used both in French and Dutch) on June the 13th to see what coalition was most likely to succeed.

Three weeks later, on July the 5 th, the king sent out Jean-Luc Dehaene (67) as mediator (bemiddelaar in Dutch, mediateur in French), to defuse the conflict-issues between Flemish and Walloon poltical parties before a coalition between christian democrats and liberals could be tried. Dehaene, a Flemish christian democrat, was Belgium’s prime minister between 1992 and 1999 and only a veto from the British prime minister John Major prevented him to succeed Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission in 1994.

Dehaene failed however in this mission and on July the 15th king Albert nominated Yves Leterme (46), the chief minister of the Flanders region and the strongman of the Flemish christian democrats formateur (this word is also both French and Dutch, in English one could translate it into ‘government maker’). For exactly fourty days he tried, in the castle of Hertoginnedal -Val Duchesse at the outskirts of Brussels, to put together the ‘orange-blue’ coalition (in French, like in English, you can play upon the words with the image of a blue orange, but you can’t in Dutch). In the end he broke his teeths on the communal issues between Flemings and Walloons.

Leterme resigned on August the 24 th. King Albert came back from holiday at the Côte d’Azur and after five days of uncertainty he sent out another veteran christian democrat, Herman Van Rompuy, with the unusual title of scout (verkenner in Dutch, explorateur in the official message of the palace, although some say that éclaireur is a better French word). Van Rompuy (60), also a Flemish christian democrat, was deputy prime minister between 1993 and 1999, and has, like Dehaene, a long experience in negotiations between Flemings and Walloons about constitutional reforms.

His nomination was greeted on both sides of the language border as that of a wise and discreet man. But everyone acknowledges that 85 days after the elections the making of a new government still has to begin. Belgium has had long and difficult formation-negotiations before – the record is 148 days in 1988 - but it never took so long to come out with a first compromise. Since a week or two the issue of seceding Flanders from Belgium is widely discussed in the Flemish media, in a rather undercooled way – with the disadvantages explained as much as the potential gains. And, in line with a good Belgian tradition, the political crisis and the communal tensions have up to now not led to a single demonstration , strike or riot.

Still, the Belgian crisis is a good case-study for everyone who is interested in nationality-conflicts in Europe. And so we will try to keep up with events as they unfold. Come and see…

(The picture above from Myriam Lemmens shows a part of the national monument on the very charming Martelaarsplein - Place des Martyrs in Brussels. The monument is dedicated to the deads of the Belgian uprising for independance in 1830. The picture was taken in 2004 when the monument had been neglected for many decades. As can be seen greenery grew upon the marble)