Sunday, 28 October 2007

Raising the stakes

The presidents of the Flemish christian democrat and liberal parties have put what amounts to an ultimatum on the negotiating table for an orange blue coalition. Or haven’t they? While formateur Yves Leterme and the negotiators in the parliament building last week continued to give press conferences about new agreements on different policies for the next government, nationalist tensions were steadily on the rise. First there was the fall-out of the incidents last Monday in three Flemish villages with a Walloon majority in the council (see Preparations for the final clash). The Flemish minister of the Interior Marino Keulen on Wednesday in a debate in the Flemish parliament made clear that the new incidents would not help the three majors concerned in their attempts to have their re-election last year officially confirmed. The power to do so lies in the hands of the minister. Keulen had subjected the nomination procedure to an inquiry into the attempts of the majors in September 2006 not to follow the legally prescribed language procedures – they tried to use French - during the election process for the local councils. The warning of the minister provoked a new angry reaction from FDF-leader Olivier Maingain the next day. He said that he would not accept any compromise on nationalist questions as long as the majors have not been confirmed in their office. Maingains FDF is part of the MR of Didier Reynders. The latter refused to confirm the threat of Maingain, but did not want to condemn it either. On Thursday it became again clear that CDH-president Joëlle Milquet was on a collision course with her Flemish colleagues about more than one question in the negotiations. The liberal party president Bart Somers publicly denounced her tactics and demanded that formateur Leterme should take the nationalist issues back to the table, just to test if all the rest still made sense. He openly criticized Letermes working method as too slow. Somers’ attack on Milquet received more than plain support from Jo Vandeurzen (picture, by Bart Dewael), the party president of CD&V, Letermes party. Vandeurzen said that it should be clear before the 7th of November if negotiations can lead to a compromise about the nationalist questions. If not, his party would stop to use delaying tactics in the commission of the Interior of the Lower House, were a Flemish proposal to split the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde has been in discussion since early September. The Flemish MP’s have a majority in the Lower House, large enough to vote the proposal. But they have refrained from using it, as the Walloon parties had indeed threatened that such a one-sided decision would bring the end of all discussions about a new government. The next meeting of the commission is on the 7th of November. Vandeurzens threat, to which Somers adhered on Sunday, no doubt raises the stakes. But as there is, in the worst scenario, a commission vote on the 7th November, and not yet a decision of the plenary assembly of the Lower House, it remains to be seen if the Walloon parties will immediately switch off all lights. Pressure rises, cracks appear, but this could as well be a signal that there is enough hope that at some moment in the next days enough glue will be found to make an orange-blue coalition stick together.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Preparations for the final clash

In the last week negotiators of the orange-blue parties around formateur Yves Leterme added almost a chapter a day to the agreement for the next government. But as the end is nearing, tensions over the final hot issues start inevitably to rise again. To the outside world Leterme and his fellow-negotiators (see the picture, taken in one of the rooms of the parliament building)–with no longer only the party presidents but every day more and more people around the table – present themselves as a well-oiled machine with fresh new ideas for the first centre-right government in Belgium in twenty years. During the last week they wrote five new chapters of the government agreement. But nobody is in doubt that the harder choices still have to be debated: the growing budgetary deficit, health policy and certainly also unemployment. Whereafter the main nationalistic issues – constitutional reform and the division of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde, the largest electoral district in the country (see the core of the stalemate) – should be put upon the table. Three incidents in the last few days show that even the rather insignificant progress in the negotiations about these two questions since June the 10th remains extremely fragile. The first incident took place in the middle of last week, but remained a few days hidden for the media. During a meeting of the leaders of the Flemish cartel of the christian democratic and nationalist party (CD&V en N-VA) Bart Dewever, president of the N-VA had a head-on clash with former royal scout Herman Van Rompuy. He attacked the compromise the latter had made on the procedure for negotiations about the nationalistic issues. As Dewever accused Van Rompuy in general of making too much concessions to the Walloons, and the latter felt he was not fully supported by his own party, the ex-scout decided to quit the negotiation team of CD&V. In his typical style, he did not make too much press-noise about this. On Saturday Didier Reynders, the president of the Walloon MR, made some concessions towards the Flemish positions. In an in interview with the Flemish newspaper De Morgen he accepted to discuss about constitutional reform, and took a rather moderate position about the issue of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde. Flemish liberals and christian democrats reacted positively, but the N-VA, after an initial hesitation, rejected Reynders’ proposals as ‘nothing new’. More worrying still for the liberal party president was that the Brussels nationalist faction within his own ranks – the FDF of Brussels politician Olivier Maingain – decided to call for extraordinary communal councils in three villages around Brussel, and for discussions in the French language there. The three villages – Linkebeek, Kraainem and Wezenbeek-Oppem - are part of the Flemish region, but have a Walloon majority in their council. Language law forbids the usage of French during the council, and makes all decisions taken after a discussion and vote in that language invalid. The three councils took place on Monday evening. And in each of them a discussion in French was started, with the inevitable shouting and skirmishes between hot-headed Flemish and Walloons as a result. TV-camera’s were as much present as spectators. The most worrying aspect though was political. Few people now doubt that Maingain and his FDF are not really interested in a solution for BHV, as the tensions there have time and again fed their popularity. Rumours say that Yves Leterme wants to see clear in the possibility of a compromise on the nationalistic issues at the beginning of next week. From the first to the fourth of November a break in negotiations has been planned. The sixth of November will be the 149th day without a governement, a new record in Belgian political history.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Land in sight

Go, comrades, and conquer ...
After four months of hesitation, negotiations for an orange-blue coalition are finally getting into full swing. The socialist parties have settled for a new role as his majesty’s federal opposition. Formateur Yves Leterme and the four presidents of the christan democratic and liberal parties reached an agreement on a Justice and Police program for the new coalition shortly before midnight on Monday evening. Again the Walloon Christian democrats of the CDH had taken up more leftish positions than the other three parties, which caused the negotiations to last well into the night (see for an explanation: Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?). In the end the new chapter of the government program still has very much a centre-right content. The possibilities for judges to bring youngsters from 14 years and older who commit grave crimes to adult tribunals, have largely been enhanced. Judges will be allowed in some cases of strong criminality to put limits on procedures for an early release. And the new government wants to build new prison cells for 1500 detainees, and recruit 1350 extra policemen all over the country. On Tuesday afternoon Leterme started negotiations on a new chapter, about health policy. In the morning he had seen the Flemish party presidents, to speak with them for the first time about the nationalistic issues since he was named formateur again. He will do the same with the Walloon party chiefs tomorrow. Tensions have somewhat come down, since Letermes CD&V at least informally accepted the procedure-calendar about constitutional reform as it was written down by royal scout Herman van Rompuy at the end of September. Last weekend Bart De Wever, the president of N-VA, the Flemish nationalist cartel-partner of CD&V, followed the same line in a tv-interview. He said that for the split up of the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde – the other big thorny issue where nationalist views of Flemish and Walloons radically oppose each other – propably ‘a spoonful of sugar’ would be needed to make the Walloons accept. His comments were immediately greeted with protests about too much concessions, even from within the ranks of the N-VA itself. But although the nationalist issues remain a hard nut to crack, the general impression is that the four parties have taken the turn into the road towards a new coalition government. Some people now talk about a new cabinet – Leterme-Reynders - around half November. And speculations about who will be minister have started in the newspapers. The surest confirmation of all this came from the socialist parties, who have started to speak strong opposition language. The Flemish socialist minister Frank Vandenbroucke stressed in a newspaper article on Saturday that the Christian democrats of Leterme and the liberals of the VLD had definitely preferred a centre-right policy over the need to achieve constitutional reform. At a congress of his party in Liège on Sunday, Elio di Rupo, the president of the Walloon socialist,(picture) demanded ‘a territorial link’ between Wallony and Brussels. He so implicitly suggested that territorial gains for French-speaking Belgium should be made at the detriment of Flanders. It was the strongest nationalist stuff to be heard at a PS-congress in more than two decades.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Final Fantasy on Belgium

Hundred and twenty five-days without a government have stimulated the creativity of many Belgians. This has not resulted in a flow of angry and passionate messages, as might have been expected in a nationality-crisis. No, in a very much Belgian way, many of its inhabitants start to expose the irony, the absurdity and the plain surrealism of the situation. And they practise nowhere more than in that generous new medium called Youtube. The most spectacular movie-fragment is probably that of a huge explosion at the royal Palace in the heart of Brussels. Although such an event would be the ultimate dream of Flemish nationalist extremist – who hate the royal family because it is the symbol of Belgium – the video seems to have been made by French-speaking students, as an exercise in special effects and a joke.

Charming – and already nine months old - is Ik hou van jou/je t’aime, playing a children’s tune of the national anthem, the Brabançonne, with lyrics in both Ducth and French, showing all sterotype-images of the country, but in the end leaving the question open if Belgiums is a non-country to love or to laugh at.

Friday, 12 October 2007

A little juwel is Hey Yves Leterme, a lyric written in Dutch by two young popular radio-presentators Peter Van de Veire and Sofie Lemaire, of the Flemish broadcast Studio Brussel. They sing the text on the fragile music of ‘Hey There Delilah’ from the US-band Plain White T’s. And it is all about poor Yves Leterme, the Flemish christian democrat strongman, who had a huge triumph on election day, but two months later has nothing but troubles to master.

Not bad either is Belgique en crise, a slightly ironic video on the tones of ‘Non, non, rien à changé’, the nineteen-seventies hit of the French children-band Les Poppys. And although it is in French, it clearly was made by a Flemish director, a certain Marcia.

The last one, De Nieuwe Brabanconne, starts as a classical Flemish satire on everything Belgian (beginning with the national anthem of course), but ends in a tribute to the King, from which it cannot be detected if it is ironic or not. Never try to understand Belgium. Its inhabitants have given up on this a long time ago.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Some progress, at last

Yves Leterme (center) with Joëlle Milquet (on his left) and Didier Reynders, at 3.30 a.m. this morning
Two months after their last agreement the orange-blue parties have reached a new compromise about one part of the policies of the next government. But even formateur Yves Leterme conceded that the success of this negotiation was in doubt until the last minute. Leterme and the party presidents of the four christian democratic and liberal parties held a press conference in the parliament-building at 3.30 a.m. on Tuesday morning (picture VRT). They proudly announced that they had negotiated a compromise on the policies of immigration of the next government. The most important changes proposed are that immigrants will henceforth have to wait five years instead of three, before they can obtain the Belgian nationality. In the future a new bride of an immigrant will only obtain the Belgian nationality if her husband can prove that he can finance a decent living for her. The formateur himself said that negotiations had been though and still seemed on the verge of collapsing about midnight Monday. But he also stressed that in the end the agreement reached was not a watered down compromise but the starting point for a clear-cut immigration policy. The uncertainty about the negotiations had been fuelled by a series of incidents during the weekend and on Monday. The Flemish liberal minister of Foreign Affairs Karel De Gucht said in a tv-interview on Sunday that the Flemish christian democrats had made huge concessions on their nationalist program. He publicly said what many observers thought, but the CD&V-bosses were not amused and reacted vehemently. On Saturday two Brussels newspapers – Le Soir and La Libre Belgique – published the text of the non-paper that royal scout Herman Van Rompuy negotiated a week earlier to lie down the procedure of constitutional reform. The fact that the note was leaked to the press, made the orange-blue parties again deep suspicious about a mole in their midst, determined to sabotage every kind of progress in the talks. On top of these incidents came a poisonous verbal exchange between Olivier Maingain, the president of the FDF (the Brussels-nationalist wing of the Walloon liberal MR) and Joëlle Milquet, the president of the Walloon Christian democrat CDH, about the interpretation of Van Rompuy’s non-paper. When the negotiators met each other again on Monday noon, it looked very much that the disputes of August had returned in full swing. Few journalist were ready to bet a dime on Letermes success Many hours later, the atmosphere was cleared up again. Gradually it seems that after 120 days of recriminations the orange-blue parties are beginning to accept that they are doomed to step into the same boot. But don’t bet too fast. The big issues still have to be discussed.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Laying a bridge over troubled water

Yves Leterme has started his second mission as formateur with the utmost caution. Not the least because the agreements his predecessor Herman Van Rompuy seemed to have achieved last weekend, fell apart less than two days later. At least about the form the new formateur has learned the lessons royal scout Van Rompuy teached during the month of his mission. Yves Leterme now keeps an almost absolute silence about his talks and acts, and has moved his office to the parliament building in the centre of Brussels. The building (picture Myriam Lemmens) has so many exits that no media should be able to keep a camera on them all the time. The by far the most popular politician in Flanders has started his second attempt to form a government – the first one failed at the end of August – with an apparently very slow pace. The aim is still to make a coalition of Christian democrats and liberals. Leterme took this week each of the four party presidents apart for a long discussion. And he started some negotiations about less troublesome subjects, like justice and social benefits.
The formateur may have good reasons to be cautious. Newspapers reported he was himself surprised when the king called him to Ciergnon on Saturday evenening to be appointed to make the final steps towards a government. The rumour has up to now not been denied by Leterme himself. Up to Saturday noon everybody believed that Van Rompuy’s mission had ended in failure. But on Sunday and Monday Joëlle Milquet, the president of the Walloon Christian democrats, trumpeted forth that she had an agreement with the scout about her demand that constitutional reforms that needed a two third majority would not be worked out before the start of the government. It was officially on this issue that Leterme had to abandon his first attempt as formateur six weeks ago.
But the other three party presidents were keen to say that no formal agreement was made between Van Rompuy and them, whatever Milquet may have believed. Reading between the lines one could detect that the agreement was probably tacitly accepted, but not formalized during the negotiations. Such remains the delicacy of forming the next Belgian government. Mr. Leterme has to start almost from scratch again. The crisis was Wednesday in its 115th day. The record of the length of a Belgian political crisis – 148 days in 1988 – will almost certainly be broken. There are surely enough fridges in the house of parliament to cool some champagne in expectation of the 6th of November.