Saturday, 29 September 2007
Tuesday, 25 September 2007
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
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 moment of truth is nearing for royal scout Herman Van Rompuy. But probably not yet for
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
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
Monday, 17 September 2007
Friday, 14 September 2007
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 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
Thursday, 13 September 2007
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
Tuesday, 11 September 2007
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
This reform was almost completed after a formal language border was drawn in 1963 (one exception being the area around
In 1970 a devolution-process was started, through arduous negotiations and constitutional reforms. It led to the creation of three regional governments – in
Friday, 7 September 2007
The British weekly The Economist might have given up on
The Economist let the bells toll on
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
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
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
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,
With a weaker economy and an unemployment level more than twice as high as in
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
Through the one large electoral district the French-speaking political big shots of
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
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
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
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
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.
Monday, 3 September 2007
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
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.
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.
I’m starting this blog in an attempt to explain to people abroad (and in my best English) why my country,
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
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.
Still, the Belgian crisis is a good case-study for everyone who is interested in nationality-conflicts in
(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)