Saturday, 18 December 2010


Negotiations for a new Belgian government are becoming extremely foggy. This week some hope flared up after it seemed that a first vague agreement on the Finance Law had been reached. But it rapidly proved to be no real breakthrough. The royal negotiator then decided, after briefing the King, to take care of his sick mother again.
The week started tumultuous when the German weekly Der Spiegel published an interview with Bart De Wever. In it the leader of the Flemish nationalists expressed his deeper feelings again, about ‘Belgium as the sick man of Europe’ and ‘the Walloon economy being addicted to infusions of Flemish subsidies’. The interview caused some predictable commotion, as it is not done to attack each other that hard during delicate negotiations.
De Wever defended his stance by saying he has to take up the rare occasions when foreign media want to hear the Flemish point of view, instead of always reading the Brussels French-speaking newspapers. In the end his counterpart Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists, did not want to pick up the provocation. With a generous smile he asked ‘everybody to seek an agreement instead of spreading insults’.
It seemed a good sign. Still better: on Tuesday, the four Flemish parties communicated that in their talks with royal negotiator Johan Vande Lanotte a tentative agreement had been reached on the new Finance Law, the main stumbling block in the negotiations. And on Wednesday, the three French-speaking parties, in their separate talks with Vande Lanotte, did not immediately reject this new proposal.
It probably all had to do with the announcement on Tuesday of the rating agency Standard’s and Poor that it might downgrade its score on Belgian bonds in the near future if there still would be no government. The first commotion of this news went away towards the end of the week, as the spread between Belgian and German long-term bonds on the financial markets fell once again. That did not refrain José Manual Barroso, the president of the European Commission, to warn again on Friday that Belgium needs a government soon.
On Thursday the newspapers in the country expressed for the first time since long some slight optimism about the negotiations. But it rapidly seeped through that the hailed new proposal on the Finance Law was nothing more than an agreement on six very general and sometimes contradictory principles. And the three francophone parties had proposed amendments on at least two of these six principles.
Di Rupo indeed had literally commented on Wednesday that it was ‘a good base for discussion, but not yet an agreement’. In the general confusion nobody mentioned that three months ago a similar kind of agreement had been reached on similar general principles, but that this hed lead to nowhere.
In their thirst for some positive news the media also announced that negotiator Vande Lanotte would tackle other institutional issues from Friday onwards, and that he would put up a summary proposal on all institutional questions somewhere next week. But it became rapidly clear that on the contrary new questions were put on the table about the so-called agreement on the Finance Law, especially the question of extra subsidies for the Brussels region and even the chronic financial deficit of the French-speaking Community, a classic of all institutional reforms of the past.
On Friday morning, on the 57th day of his mission, Vande Lanotte went to the castle of Laken, to report to King Albert. And it was not really a surprise that a few hours later he let it be known that the health situation of his ailing old mother had deteriorated again, that he was travelling to the hospital in Ypres where she is treated, and that all talks were suspended until at least Sunday evening.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Time for grandma

The negotiations for a new Belgian government were suspended at 3 pm this afternoon, until Monday, it was announced. The reason given for this is that the health situation of the mother of the royal negotiator, Johan Vande Lanotte, has seriously deteriorated.
Vande Lanotte saw the leaders of the French-speaking parties together on Thursday morning for no longer than one hour. Afterwards nobody made any statement. At 2 pm a so-called technical meeting started between delegates of the Flemish parties, but which the party presidents could attend if they wished so. They all four showed up.
After one hour it was Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist, who came to the press to read a statement. ‘The royal negotiator has asked me to make the very sad announcement that the health situation of his mother has suddenly and rapidly deteriorated. Therefore the negociations will be suspended until Monday.’
De Wever and the three other party presidents afterwards continued their ‘technical’ talks, in the absence of Vande Lanotte. No further statements were made. For observators it was especially remarkable that even if the illness is genuine, it was De Wever who read the statement and not someone from Vande Lanottes own socialist party. Relations between the Flemish nationalists and socialists have been hampered by a series of incidents the last few weeks.
On Wednesday Vande Lanotte had met the four Flemish party-presidents. De Wever had rejected his proposal for a new Finance Law based on a system of tax credits for the regions. He demanded a proposal based on the so-called split rate. The technical working group on Thursday would have to achieve this. Meanwhile it was clear that the new twist in the discussions would need some (difficult to achieve) assent from the French-speaking parties.
Some commentators have expressed their impression that the only thing that keeps the seven parties around the table these days is that they fear to become the main culprit of eventually negative events once the negotiations have definitely broken down.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

A tale of impotence

After 175 days of talks and hesitations the negotiations for a new Belgian government seem to have entered the realm of absurdities. Each day it gets more obvious that the two leaders who were raised on the shield by the voters in the parliamentary elections of June the 13th are too afraid of their own shadow to make a compromise. New elections are almost certainly inevitable.
Johan Vande Lanotte, the former president of the small Flemish socialist party, on Monday starts his 46th day of negotiations. At 3 pm he will see together for the second time the four Flemish parties that seek a new institutional reform. So far he has not succeeded in bringing together again around the same table the seven parties that since the elections continuously have said they want to form a new coalition. It is now a full three months since they sat the last time together.
Vande Lanotte attempted to start a breakthrough last week. He convinced Elio di Rupo, the president of the French-speaking socialists and the triumphant winner of the elections in Wallonia and Brussels, to come out with a new initiative. Di Rupo had been silent, lethargic and even obstructive since his own attempt to form the government ended in failure at the end of August.
On Wednesday the 1st of December Di Rupo gave an interview to four newspapers, in which he made a new proposal about the Finance Law, the key-issue in the negotiations. He offered the regions a fiscal autonomy of 43 %, slightly more than the 40 % he had been ready to accept in earlier talks. And this proposal was, like the previous ones, wrapped in conditions about limiting fiscal competition between the regions.
For the umpteenth time the man who has been the favourite to become the next prime minister thus demonstrated that he is strong in rhetoric about wanting a real decentralisation inside Belgium, but short in measures. In other words: he wants to create the impression that is needed to be acceptable as prime minister to the Flemish parties, but does not take any risk in creating some distance to the lobbies in his own party.
His Flemish counterpart, Bart De Wever, the leader of the nationalist party and the big winner of the elections in Flanders, reacted within the same day in two short television interviews. He said he was ‘rather sceptical’ about the new proposals. And he let journalists understand that he was annoyed about the way the proposal was announced to him, via the media
On Sunday De Wever, in another television interview, made the astonishing remark ‘that he still was unable to give a definite opinion as he had had no written text of the proposal’. He did not make clear if he had made any serious attempt to demand it. Meanwhile on Saturday and Sunday, he also ventilated his opinions about the migration question, another hotly disputed topic between Flemish and French-speaking political parties. What he said was clearly no attempt to compromise on that issue.
So De Wever continued to offer the remarkable image of the leader of the biggest party in the country standing aside and observing and analysing the situation without taking much initiative or tabling proposals to solve problems. In that sense the resemblance with the behaviour of di Rupo the last three months is striking. One should expect the winners of the elections to take the lead, to try to become the next prime minister, to show the nation were they want to go and what they want to achieve, but neither seems to want to.
The more optimistic explanation of this attitude of di Rupo and De Wever is that both are playing poker, in the hope that the other one will blink first. The more probable reason is that both have lacked imagination and creativity to take the opportunity they had, and since then have proven unable to get rid of the fear of their own shadow. Almost six months after the elections the Belgian voters who had believed they had chosen two undisputed leaders, have now to confront the reality of general political impotence.
The good news – not the least for the financial markets that early last week for two days pushed up interest rates of Belgian government bonds - is that in these circumstances a break-up of the country is less likely. Neither of the two main characters must be considered capable of handling such a radical reform. The bad news is that Belgium is probably heading for new elections, somewhere towards the end of January or the beginning of February.


Friday, 26 November 2010

New proposal, new wrangling

After five weeks of talks and studies the royal negotiator Johan Vande Lanotte finally tabled a proposal on Wednesday the 24th of November. The good news is that this one was not immediately torn apart. But two days later the wrangling has definitely started again.

As he had announced last week Vande Lanotte sent a concrete proposal for institutional reforms (but without the thorny issue of the electoral district of Brussels) to the seven parties that have been negotiating for a new Belgian government since the elections of last June.

At 4 pm on Wednesday he announced in a press statement that all seven parties had agreed to continue discussions based on this proposal. But the negotiator remains extremely prudent. He saw the three presidents of the French-speaking parties - Elio di Rupo for the socialists, Joëlle Milquet for the Christian democrats and Jean-Michel Javeaux for the Greens – together on Thursday afternoon for more than four hours. On arriving at the parliament, where the talks were held, all three gave some slightly optimistic comments.

This afternoon Vande Lanotte will meet with the presidents of the four Flemish parties – Bart De Wever for the Flemish nationalist, Wouter Beke for the Christian democrats, Caroline Gennez for the socialists (his own party) and Wouter Van Besien for the greens. Bringing all the parties around the same table - something that has not happened since early September - is an ambition for next week at the earliest.

Vande Lanotte proposes a complicated but balanced system for the Finance Law, with still some options left open for further negotiations. The main balance seems to be that the financial devolution, and thus the growing fiscal responsibility of the regions, will be slowly introduced in the next ten years, to give the economically weaker more regions - Brussels and Wallony - some time to adapt.

The proposal also contained some suggestions to decentralize the Justice department and to give the Brussels region more money, as a kind of compensation for having a few hundred of thousands workers coming in each day from outside the region without paying taxes in the capital.

On Friday morning a strong attack against the proposal was made by Kris Peeters, the chief minister of the Flemish Government and for many the real leader of the Christian democrats. Peeters complained that if Vande Lanottes proposals about the Finance Law would be accepted, the Flemish Government would have to make 2 billion euro in additional budgetary cuts before the next regional elections in 2014.

Peeters’ comments were immediately rebuffed by Philippe Moureaux, the Brussels strongman of the French-speaking socialists.  In the newspapers there were also some indications about mounting tensions between the Flemish socialists of Vande Lanotte and the NVA of Bart De Wever. Both are coalition partners, with the Christian democrats, in the Flemish government of Kris Peeters …

How clever Vande Lanottes proposals may be, in the end it still will be the degree of trust between the parties that will pave the way for a new government. Everybody agrees that it is better than a few weeks ago, but this can rapidly deteriorate now that the real negotiations have started again. In that case new elections become highly probable, although it is not certain that the parties can even agree on that.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Creeping ahead

Twenty seven days after being appointed, the Royal negotiator Johan Vande Lanotte is nearing the point where he has to bring together the seven parties that want to form a new Belgian government together again around the same table. It is almost ten weeks ago since this happened the last time.

Vande Lanotte had the first of a series of long discussions with each of the parties today, starting with the biggest one, the Flemish nationalist NVA of Bart De Wever. The talks started in the afternoon and lasted till the evening.

The royal negotiator had announced during a press conference on Tuesday that he would start the discussion about the most controversial issue, the new Finance Law, with each of the parties involved in the negotiating process.

The last weeks Vande Lanotte had put a panel of university-professors and experts from the National Bank and the Bureau du Plan on the proposals for the Finance Law that he had asked from each of the seven parties. They had to calculate what each scenario would mean, in the short and the long term and with different growth-parameters, for the budget of the different authorities concerned.

To prevent leaks to the press each party received only the calculations of its own proposal. The experts who made the calculations were not said from which party the proposals originated, although they probably could guess it. The paradox is that by working this way the royal negotiator seems to have dissipated some of the mistrust between the seven parties.

After his new round of talks Vande Lanotte will try to put down a proposal for a compromise on his own, and dispatch it to each of the parties. He might then bring these around the same table to discuss it. This should happen somewhere next week at the earliest, and should indeed be a crucial moment.

If the negotiator succeeds the other institutional issues still have to be tackled, although these are less cumbersome than the Finance Law. And after the institutional issues, there are still big knots to unravel, such as the budgetary cuts of about 22 bn euro towards 2015, and a compromise about a new migration policy, on which Flemish and French-speaking parties defend wholly different views.

More and more politicians, even among the negotiating parties, expect that if Vande Lanotte fails in finding a compromise about the Finance Law in the weeks ahead, new elections will be the only outcome. On the other hand, if he succeeds and the negotiations can continue, most observers expect no new government before the end of January.

Government negotiations in Belgium have now been dragging on for 157 days. The absolute record of government formation – 194 days in 2007 – should normally be broken on Christmas Day.  

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

No new elections yet

After twelve days the new Royal negotiator, Johan Vande Lanotte, announced on Tuesday evening that he was making slow progress in his efforts to form a new government in Belgium.  As he indicated that he would need still at least ten days, it is now certain that no new elections can take place before the middle of January 2011.

Vande Lanotte (picture from belga news agency), a former president of the Flemish socialist party, reported about his mission at 4 pm on Tuesday. He left King Albert in the palace of Laeken one and a half hour later. Shortly after 6 pm he read a brief statement to the press in the Senate. It was the first time he broke the self-imposed radio-silence that he had promised when he was appointed on the 21st of September.

‘The way towards an agreement is still long and uncertain’, he said, ‘but part of the way to restore confidence has been traveled’. Vande Lanotte will see each of the seven party-presidents around the negotiating table before the weekend. After that he hopes to receive an advice about the numbers of the new Finance Law from experts of the National Bank and the Bureau du Plan.

The royal mediator announced again that he would remain extremely discreet in his comments in the next weeks. He indicated that he will continue at least until the 12th of November, which will be a moment to evaluate the situation. This means that – given that the organization of new elections takes at least 40 days – no new elections will take place before Christmas, which in practice means that it is impossible to hold these before the 16th of January. To reach the latter date, parliament should be dissolved on the 7th of December at the latest.

In the first days of Vande Lanottes mission several leaders of the Flemish Nationalists – including their president Bart De Wever - indicated that this round of negotiations was, as far as they were concerned, the last before new elections. Since then Vande Lanotte has brought twice the main rivals, De Wever and his French-speaking socialist counterpart Elio di Rupo, together around a good meal. No other comments have been heard.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

A wise man from the sea

After 130 days of political crisis King Albert appointed a new mediator on Thursday afternoon: Johan Vande Lanotte, former deputy prime minister and former president of the Flemish socialist party, the fifth largest group in Parliament. About this appointment the palace willingly neglected to consult the largest party and winners of the last elections, the Flemish nationalist.

Johan Van de Lanotte was called to the palace of Laeken in the early afternoon on Thursday. In a statement after the meeting at 4 pm the palace announced that he was appointed for ‘a mission of conciliation’. His first task is to figure out what the different scenarios that have been put on the table up to now for a new Finance Law will mean in terms of money for the different regions. For this he should consult experts of the National Bank and the Bureau du Plan.

Vande Lanotte, 55, and from the coastal city of Ostend, was deputy prime minister of Belgium for eight years, minister of the Interior for four and minister of the Budget for five. Besides he teaches Constitutional Law at the University of Ghent. But the main reason that he was appointed is probably that his party, the SPA (Flemish socialists), which he led between 2005 and 2007, is both Flemish and socialist and thus in between the main rivals in the negotiations, the Flemish nationalist NVA and the French-speaking socialists of the PS.

In a brief statement to the press after his appointment Vande Lanotte said that he would work in complete discretion and report a first time to the King on the 2nd of November. After that day it will become extremely difficult to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections before the end of the year. The next possibility is a dissolution of parliament early December.

The appointement of Vande Lanotte came after King Albert had consulted the presidents of six of the seven negotiating parties in the previous days. The last was Elio di Rupo of the French-speaking socialists who stayed three hours at the palace on Thursday morning. Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, was no more consulted after he left the palace on Monday evening, where he had announced his resignation as ‘clarifier’. There had been no official statement of the palace about the end of his mission Monday.

Leading figures of the NVA said on Thursday evening they were ready to work with Vande Lanotte, but that the party was in no way consulted about the appointment. They added that the search for a seven party coalition – which Vande Lanotte has to revive -  had come to a dead end, not because of the lack of clear statistics, but because of the refusal of the PS to accept the necessary reforms for the country.

Earlier in the day the leader of the socialist trade union, Rudy De Leeuw, launched a frontal attack on the NVA. He accused the party of trying to promote neoliberal remedies through institutional reform and called all progressive parties to unite against the attack on the Belgian social model.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Another one bites the dust

Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, has failed in his attempt to form a new Belgian government. After 127 days since the elections took place, the shouting across the linguistic border inside Belgium is rapidly escalating

De Wever was appointed ‘clarificateur’ by King Albert on the 8th of October. His mission was limited in scope and time: in ten days he had to find it if was still possible to make a compromise on institutional reform the corner-stone of a seven-party coalition (socialists, Christian-democrats and greens from both parts of the country, and the Flemish nationalists as the largest party of Belgium). Negotiations for this coalition had been dragging for almost six weeks after Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists had failed in his attempt.

The nationalists leader saw each of his colleagues and delivered a proposal on institutional reform of 48 pages on Sunday the 17th. Shortly afterwards he made the proposal public. It was the first time in four months that a written text was put on the table.

Although De Wever announced that his proposal would be balanced and full of clear choices, it was neither balanced, nor clear. It elaborated on earlier proposals of Di Rupo, but gave these a stronger twist towards devolution, the main aim of the Flemish parties. The latter was especially the case for the Finance Law (the knot of all negotiations), with larger fiscal responsibilities for the regions. The proposal did not create new and clear-cut structures for a new Belgium, but built on previous institutional reforms.

Within three hours after the publication of the De Wevers proposal the Parti Socialiste of Elio di Rupo ripped them apart on Sunday evening in a press statement that called it ‘unilateral and provocative’. The French-speaking socialists continued on Monday in using ever stronger terms to condemn De Wevers approach. The two smaller French-speaking parties of the left almost ritually followed this escalation.

The Flemish nationalist leader received nevertheless the support of most of the Flemish media and all the Flemish political parties for his text. Strengthened by this support, and apparently shocked by the rapid condemnation of the PS, his party too started to become vociferous against the French-speaking counterparts. It radicalised its tone again on the thorny issue of the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde and announced that, as far as it was concerned, ‘the story was over’.

At 5 pm De Wever reported about his mission to King Albert. One hour later he left the palace again, no longer in charge. In a television interview afterwards he said that the French-speaking parties would have to accept change in the country, and that otherwise new elections would be inevitable.

The King will probably seek to win time, hoping that tempers will calm down again. As the idea of  a seven-party coalition is now almost dead, he might still sent out a liberal to have a try, more for formal than for convincing reasons.

New elections, six months after the previous ones, are indeed the most likely outcome. Although few people believe they might solve anything, they might rapidly turn into a vote on the survival of Belgium as the impasse has now been lasting for three and a half years. In the meantime a brutal power struggle is already filling the scenery, with escalating nasty nationalist tones on both sides rapidly becoming the hype of the moment.


Sunday, 17 October 2010

Another failed attempt

The three French speaking parties that negotiate a new Belgian government reacted negatively on Sunday evening to a 48 pages large proposal of the royal mediator Bart De Wever. He had shortly before announced that he had tabled a text of compromise, with clear choices.

De Wever made his proposal public at 4 pm on Sunday. In it he elaborated on the proposals that had been tabled six weeks ago by Elio di Rupo. De Wever gave these a new twist towards decentralization, but like Di Rupo before he stayed within the framework of previous institutional reforms. The ‘clear choices’ that he had announced were not immediately visible.

In the same way it was not evident that he had reached a compromise between Flemish and French-speaking parties. As devolution is almost only a Flemish demand, the Flemish nationalist leader proposed, by choosing for a strong impetus towards decentralization, advances for the Flemish point of view, obviously without too much compensation towards the sensitivities of his French-speaking counterparts.

In the first chapter of his proposal De Wever advocated a series of pay cuts for the members of the federal and regional parliaments in Belgium (the country has seven kinds of parliaments with globally almost 500 representatives). They seemed rather cheap, as at the same time he did not mention more efficient proposals for cuts in the overgrown Belgian institutions such as the abolition of the Senate and the province councils.

Less than four hours after the publication of his proposal, and one hour after the press conference De Wever gave about it, the three French speaking parties that sit with him around the negotiating table had already rejected the text. For the main one, the Parti Socialiste of Elio di Rupo, ‘the text of Mr. De Wever does not bring any closer the points of views of Flemish and French-speaking Belgians, although this was the mission that the King conferred to him”.

The party accused the nationalist leader of ‘trying to suffocate’ the development of the Walloon and the Brussels region through his proposals for a new Finance Law. It condemned the proposals as ‘unilateral and sometimes even provocative’ and feared they would ‘strengthen the tensions between Flemish and Walloons’.

The Flemish parties did not want to react immediately. Tomorrow afternoon De Wevers ten-day mission comes to an end, and he will have to report to King Albert. It is already unlikely that he will bring good news to the palace.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

The first written words, after four months

After a short round of consultations this week, Bart De Wever will tomorrow deliver a concrete set of proposals about institutional reform to the seven parties that have been negotiating for a new Belgian government since June. The seven will have to react on Monday noon at the latest.

De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist party, was appointed by King Albert on Friday the 8th with a “clarification mission” for the stalled negotiations. The following weekend saw some acrimonious shouting between the leaders of the seven parties, the most vociferous being Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialist. He had to give way for the prime role on the scenery to De Wever. Then, from Tuesday to Thursday, De Wever saw each of the party leaders apart.

Early on Friday the news broke that the royal negotiator had tried to put the proposals that had been discussed the last few months on paper, and to clarify these. Elio di Rupo, who had been attempting to form the government from July to September, had never put any proposal on paper, although he seemed to have advanced considerably.

On Friday noon De Wever issued a statement in which he announced that he would work out a proposal on institutional reform, on paper. That proposal would be submitted Sunday morning to the seven parties around the table, who would have to answer at the latest on Monday at noon. Monday afternoon, De Wever has to report to King Albert, as had been agreed at the beginning of his ten-day mission.

The nationalist leader warned that ‘my proposal will be a compromise, but one with clear choices’. He elaborated a lot on that, which led him also to the cryptic phrase that he ‘wants a social security for the poor, not of the poor’.

The royal negotiator said he wanted to get rid with the practices of the past ‘where hugely complicated constructions were agreed that after a while only worsened the problems’. Each party would find painful concessions in the proposal, ‘including my own one’.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Who’s to be the next prime minister?

King Albert II of Belgium has sent out Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, to restart the negotiations for a new Belgian government. On Friday evening he appointed him for a limited mission that should end on the 18th of October. In what preceded the decision, it became clear that a battle for becoming the next prime minister has put up an additional difficulty.

The king invited De Wever (picture from Pierre-Yves Thienpont) at 7:30 pm on Friday, after he had consulted each of the presidents of the seven parties that  had negotiated for a new government up to now (the christian democrats, socialists and greens from each side of the country and the Flemish nationalists). The liberals were again left out, although De Wever, in his talks with the king,  had insisted to consult them.

This element  shows the complexity of the situation. The core dispute remains that Flanders has an outright centre-right majority and  French-speaking Belgium a centre-left. In the last two decades the Belgian sum of both was a centre-left federal government. This explains why a huge majority in Flanders nowadays demands radical devolution, something most French-speaking parties want to prevent.

With the French-speaking liberals of the MR indicating that they are prepared to discuss this radical devolution, there is now an overall majority in parliament for this. But as the three left parties in French-speaking Belgium (socialists, Christian democrats and greens) are tied to each other and refuse to let the MR in, there is no majority in Wallony neither for devolution, nor for a federal government with strong centre-right accents. The stakes are high, not the least because budget cuts for about 22 billion euros are on the agenda in the next four years.

In the hours before De Wever was invited to the palace for the second time in two days, there were some clear indications that the negotiations have definitely become a battle about who’s to become the next prime minister.  Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists and the other great winner of the elections, tried to lure the Flemish socialists and Christian democrats into proposing one of their own prominent figures to take the lead in the negotiations. Clearly this was intended to prevent De Wever of getting that role.

De Wevers right hand Ben Weyts was giving a tv-interview on Friday evening just when the news broke that the king had invited the Flemish nationalist leader again. Weyts definitely enjoyed and defended the fact that his party and its boss were now taking the lead in Belgium. This has been a contested issue within the ranks of the Flemish nationalists, but De Wever has an absolute authority in his ranks nowadays. A new opinion poll on Friday showed his party gaining another 5 % of the votes in Flanders, compared to the elections of June, and De Wever as being by large the most popular in the northern half of Belgium.

As the last few days both Di Rupo and De Wever pushed the king towards a higly political choice between themselves and between negotiations with or without the liberals, the palace finally found an elegant way out: it appointed De Wever for a mission of limited scope, officially within the framework preferred by di Rupo. The statement of the palace, issued at 9:15 pm said that he has to find out in ten days if a compromise can be reached with the seven parties (without the liberals) on the four most intricate institutional issues.

De Wever already added that his role is limited to see if one can continue with the seven parties, but did not exclude that he might see the liberals to explore this issue. Just as when he was ‘informateur’ for a short while last June, he announced that he would work in all discretion

To baptise this new-born child, king Albert again proved to be highly creative. Like with ‘preformateur’ di Rupo three months ago, he found a new name for the task he assigned to  De Wever; he is entitled with ‘a mission of clarification’ (‘mission de clarification’ in French, ‘verduidelijkingsopdracht’ in Dutch). A ‘mission of enlightment’ seems yet not to be on the agenda.


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Knock Knock who's there?

King Albert II of Belgium accepted on Tuesday evening the resignation of the two mediators he had appointed one month ago to find a way out of the stalled negotiations for a new Belgian government. It is now high probable that he will sent out the leader of the Flemish nationalists, Bart De Wever, who broke down the latest round of talks.

André Flahaut, the president of the Lower House, and Danny Pieters, his colleague of the Senate (both on the picture), acknowledged on a press conference at 7 pm Tuesday that during four weeks they had not succeeded in bringing the seven parties that had negotiated for a new government in the summer back together around the table. But they nevertheless had booked some progress on the issues in discussion, they said.

Flahaut and Pieters had shortly before handed in their resignation to king Albert at the royal palace in Laeken. They did so one day after Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist, had asked during a press conference to start the negotiations back from scratch as they had ended in deadlock.

The latter was denied by the three French-speaking parties who had participated in the negotiations. They reacted furiously on De Wevers decision, claiming that he was not capable of making agreements. The three other Flemish parties also reacted negatively, although less vehemently. Didier Reynders, the leader of the French-speaking liberals, who stayed out of the negotiations, immediately again stressed that he was ready to discuss far-reaching fiscal autonomy for the regions, the main demand of the NVA

During his press conference De Wever indicated he was ready to support the outgoing government in parliament if urgent measures had to be taken the coming months. In a press statement from the royal palace, King Albert asked outgoing prime minister Yves Leterme on Tuesday afternoon to take all measures needed to keep the economy in good shape. Leterme has repeatedly said that he does not see the necessity yet to give the caretaking government extra powers. It still has a majority of seats in parliament at his disposal and if necessary it still can go for a vote on specific issues, he said Tuesday.

King Albert will start a new round of consultations of the political parties on Wednesday afternoon, as this morning he has to see some Asian leaders who are on visit in Brussels for the summit with the EU. Many commentators now think that Bart De Wever will be sent out on a new mission, as it was him who ended the latest round of talks.

Twice in his press conference on Monday De Wever said that he ‘was ready to take up responsabilities’. That is the almost ritual phrase in Belgian politics to say that he wants to become the next prime minister. Nothing is more normal than that ambition for the leader of the largest political party in the country, which the Flemish nationalists are for the first time since the  elections of June.

But for Flemish nationalists it has in a symbolic way never been evident to take up the lead  of the more or less despised nation of Belgium. Besides they would have to make larger concessions to the French-speaking parties, the price most Flemish prime ministers always had (and were ready) to pay to obtain the keys of their new office at the center of Belgian political power.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

At last, an ultimatum

Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists (NVA), launched Sunday afternoon an ultimatum to the French-speaking parties that negotiate with him for a new Belgian government. If they do not accept by Monday that the regions should get at least 50 % of their incomes from own tax revenues, he ‘will see if it’s worth to continue the negotiations’.

The statement from the NVA-headquarters came as a surprise, after one of the new stars of the party, former VRT-journalist Siegfried Bracke, had seemed to talk moderately in the news- and talkshows of Sunday-noon about the need to reach an agreement. Nevertheless he too insisted that progress toward fiscal autonomy was the precondition ‘for starting all the reforms that our neighbours have already developed’

Progress was what had been missing all along in the discussions of the so-called high-level group, led by Jan Jambon and Jean-Claude Marcourt, that had worked a week long on the details of the Finance Law. Both chairmen delivered their report on Friday to André Flahaut en Danny Pieters, still mediators sent out by King Albert. In it they only noted the continuing differences between Flemish and French-speaking parties.

All this meant that the negotiations for a new Belgian government are stalled since about six weeks. No less than 111 days have passed since the elections of June the 13th.

In his statement of Sunday afternoon De Wever and his party said: ‘As long as it cannot be discussed that taxing of personal incomes could become a competence of the regions, it does not make sense for the NVA to start negotiating again. The party will wait what the French-speaking parties have to say about this. Based on this answer, it shall evaluate in its party council on Monday if it’s worth to continue the negotiations.’

The Flemish nationalists and most of the Flemish parties want to give the regions more fiscal autonomy, officially in order to make them more responsible for their spending behaviour in times of huge budget cuts. As the regions of Wallony and Brussels have been the weaker economies during the last decades, the French-speaking parties fear they will have to foot the bill.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Raising the stakes again

One week after a new infinitely small breakthrough in the negotiations for a new Belgian government, Bart De Wever, the leader of te Flemish nationalists, raised the stakes again. Some are getting nervous about it.

De Wever (picture: teaching at Ghent university today) gave a rare interview on Flemish radio Tuesday morning. In it he described the negotiations as a ‘catch 22’-situation. ‘My voters want me at the same time not to give in and to find a solution’, he said. He stressed that the points of views of Flemish and French-speaking parties were still very much apart and that he wanted to achieve reforms through institutional reform. He specifically mentioned migration and labour-market policies.

De Wever confirmed the statements of his fellow-nationalist Jan Peumans a day earlier. Peumans, the president of the Flemish parliament, had described the concessions of the French-speaking parties on fiscal autonomy of the regions as far too little. Thereupon Joëlle Milquet, the president of the French-speaking Christian democrats, had complained about the indiscretions in the negotiations.

For almost a week now the so-called ‘high-level group’ of the seven parties has been studying the technicalities of some scenarios for a new Finance Law. It made Frank Vandenbroucke, one of the leaders of the Flemish socialists and a specialist in the matter, say that ‘we’ve finally left the slogans behind’. But progress seems to be insignificantly small up to now.

One scenario seems to be out of the way for the time being: the possibility that De Wever wanted to change the Flemish socialists for their liberal counterparts. The latter made a disastrous demonstration of disunity last week when the coalition-parties of the Flemish government (the same that negotiate on the federal level) reached an agreement on the long-disputed question of a new highway around the city of Antwerp. For the moment nobody is interested in what seems to be a notoriously unstable liberal party.

Monday, 20 September 2010

An agreement to talk

After two weeks of shadow boxing the two main parties that want to form a new government in Belgium agreed on Monday to start talks again. A ‘high-level working group’ will begin tomorrow with discussing a new Finance Law. In a week time the Flemish nationalists want to evaluate the progress made.

Few hopes were left when the two winners of last elections – Bart De Wever, president of the Flemish nationalist NVA, and Elio di Rupo, president of the French-speaking socialist PS - coincidentally arrived together (picture) at 2 pm on Monday at the talks they had been invited to by the two mediators ans assembly-presidents, Danny Pieters (NVA) and André Flahaut (PS).

Although the latter had called for discretion last Friday, maximal pressure had been set by the PS over the weekend in public declarations towards the NVA to force that party to make concessions. Many of the Flemish newspapers on Monday morning made similar calls, albeit in a less pronounced way of course.

At 6:30 pm Di Rupo and De Wever left parliament again, without saying anything. But soon is was learned that they had decided to start a so-called ‘High-Level’ working group tomorrow to see in detail how the Finance Law can be changed. The NVA demands more fiscal power for the regions, something the Walloon and Brussels region fear because it risks leaving them with less money than today. The working group should be lead by two chairmen, one from the NVA and one from the PS. From NVA-side it could be heard that they would make a first evaluation of the progress made early next week.

In the evening it was learned that Jean-Claude Marcourt was designated for the PS to lead the new Working Group. He is the minister of Employment in the Walloon government, but negotiated a previous institutional reform in 2001 as chef de cabinet of the deputy prime minister Laurette Onkelinx.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

An exercise in political fiction: and what if Belgium would split?

For forty months now the federal government of Belgium has been immobilised by the central dispute of institutional reform. Yes, in between, the banking crisis was managed, and the budget deficit was even held slightly better under control than in the neighbouring countries. But every bit of fundamental reforms, so much needed because of the greying of the population, the migration questions, the badly functioning labour market and the worsening investment climate, has been delayed because of the deep differences between Flemish and French-speaking parties.

The logical conclusion after more than three years should be that Belgium does not work any more, that another political framework is needed to get the normal machinery of government to function again. But this conclusion has not yet been drawn by those trying to make a new government in Belgium. The reason – and everyone agrees on that – is that there is no alternative. Or that this alternative, the scenario of breaking up Belgium, is at least so unknown that nobody knows a way to begin with it.

Some media and academics have nevertheless already tried to imagine what the consequences would be of abolishing Belgium after 180 years of existence. One can indeed imagine a quite rational scenario, of which the main flaw is inevitably that it is rational. The creation and disappearance of states usually is not a rational process, but one with heavy emotions, that can easily get out of control.

*   *   *   *  *

But let us at least try. At some points in the present government negotiations the two main parties, NVA on the Flemish side and PS on the French-speaking side, decide that a divorce is inevitable, like in a married couple where the initial bond of honest and outright love had already melted away some time ago. It would probably be enough that these two big parties agree on it, like the two main parties did in Czechoslovakia in 1992. The smaller ones may not like this, but they are in no way able to create an alternative.

So the French-speaking and Flemish parties start to discuss the divorce. Two big headaches disappear immediately: there will no longer be any need to wrangle about a new Finance Law that distributes the tax revenues over different authorities, nor about the devolution of competences. Two other headaches however remain and become much, much bigger: where are the boundaries to be drawn between the new would-be independent states and what happens with the minorities inside? And how will the jobs, the infrastructure, the money and above all the debt of the federal state – and with it the whole of the social security, in money twice as large as the federal budget – be split up among the heirs of the late Belgium?

Can the Flemish and French-speaking politicians agree on this, where they have failed to do so inside Belgium? Or will they readily abandon this discussion to international mediation, with the risk of losing the driver’s seat, but with the gain of being no longer held responsible for the concessions that will inevitably follow. The latter is the more probable scenario, with the European Union stepping in, and the neighbouring countries – who except for Luxemburg were already very much present at the creation of Belgium in 1830 – following close: France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.

*   *   *   *

Things seem quite simple for Flanders. That region of slightly less than 6 million inhabitants is geographically defined and stable, with more citizens than at least ten member states of the EU, and economically still strong, although rapidly declining. But it might be obliged to start new negotiations of entry into the EU. Inside the Union the applause for secessionists will indeed be minimal, and countries such as Spain, Britain, Italy – to name but these – are likely to raise the threshold as high as possible for those who would wish to follow the example.

As a new country the former region of Flanders is vulnerable about its treatment of the French-speaking minority on its territory, about the solidarity it wants to take up as the richest of the former Belgian regions in paying the debt of the defunct nation, and above all about its wish to keep a foothold inside Brussels for the 80000 people living there and still more or less claiming  to be Flemish.

One of the Flemish aims today is to continue to have a crucial say in the running of the Brussels region. But in a splitting process Brussels, with its huge majority of French-speaking people and politicians, is unlikely to go along with Flanders. It will, on the contrary, try to obtain more money from Flanders, if that country wants to maintain a more or less privileged position for the shrinking Flemish minority in the capital region. Brussels is in dire need of cash, mainly due to its inefficient administration and government structures, and an immigration policy that for electoral reasons was made so generous (even compared with other big cities with large immigration in Western Europe), that the average income in the larger central part of city has dramatically declined in the last decade.

Brussels will need new incomes and at least one sponsor before it reaches the status of a self-supporting city-state. It will try to make Flanders pay some cash, to forge an alliance with Wallonia, and of course look to Europe too. The EU will then have to study how Washington handles this, with the federal government and the District of Columbia, and see if some of this can be applied in what is more and more the only capital of Europe. As the neighbours of Belgium are involved too, there might even be openings for a grander scheme, where Luxemburg and Strasburg are gradually abandoned (with some sweets to compensate) and the money thus spared could go to Brussels.

*   *   *   *  *

But that is already daring fiction. Brussels and Wallonia will, after the secession of Flanders, be tempted emotionally to go together in a rump-Belgium with a stronger claim on the inheritance of the defunct nation and with the French language and culture as binding agent. But the problem of the debt will drive them apart.

One can imagine that all the debt of the Belgian authorities – today about 100 % of gdp – after a split will be put in a common fund that the heirs of the defunct state have to administer and pay. As most of this debt is in the hand of citizens and enterprises of today’s Belgium, these heir-states will for their own sake be obliged to achieve its continuity. And although there is an interesting study to be made about how much owners of the debt are situated in each of the regions, it is more likely that the obligations of the follow-up states will be laid down through international mediation on the basis of objective criteria like number of citizens, surface of the territory, gross regional product and economic growth.

Regardless of the mix used in such a scenario, Flanders should be deemed capable of repaying this debt. Given its slowing economy and the fact that from all the Belgian regions it faces the biggest greying of the population, this might become more difficult after a few years. Independence will not be the great deliverance many Flemish nationalists dream of. It will on the contrary finally confront the region with its failures of the last decades, among which the worsening of the investment climate through bureaucracy, high taxes and a disastrous mobility policy is the most urgent to tackle.

Wallonia on the contrary seems to be the most promising economy of present-day Belgium in the years to come, as it is recovering from half a century of decline and stagnation, and is rapidly becoming the more interesting place to build a home an to invest. But for the moment,  it will almost certainly not be capable of paying its due part in the national debt without the kind of measures Greece has taken to stay in the eurozone. The same is true of course for Brussels that might in ten years eventually profit from its young migration population – provided it ever succeeds in offering them a decent education system and an efficient labour market, both blatantly absent these days – but lacks today the capacity to take up its part of the debt.

*   *   *   *   *

That is the point were the Belgian question will become an international question. Walloon politicians of course will prefer to keep the perks of an independent state, but the logic of debt repayment and after a while maybe also the sentiment of more and more Walloons point towards an incorporation into France. La République will thus be enlarged with five new départements (four of the five provinces of Wallonia were already départements during the French revolution). 
The French right of president Sarkozy might not like the addition 3 million people who in a large majority vote for parties of the left. But they might also speculate that some of this left-leaning is generated by the nationalistic reflex to gather around the Parti Socialiste as a counterweight against Flemish aspirations.  And it could be tempting to try to lure the voters for the presidential elections of 2012 with a greater France, enlarged with a region with good economic perspectives. As for the debt of Wallonia, inside the greater France it would disappear in a far greater amount, to be paid by almost twenty times as much citizens.

Germany will not resist to this, as the French did not really obstruct German unification twenty years ago. Berlin will ask for its compensation in another area of EU-policy, as François Mitterrand did towards Helmut Kohl. Britain will probably do the same, as the old premises for which London accepted the creation of Belgium in 1830 – the fear that France would come too close to the Rhine-delta – no longer count.

Still new problems might arise. The small German community of 75000 citizens in the east of Belgium, still half a part of the Walloon region, will lose its status of best protected minority of Europe. In that case it might prefer Germany over France. Even the Walloon province of Luxemburg – mainly rural and mostly covered by the Ardennes – might according to some prefer to enlarge the Grand-Duchy nearby than to become part of France. But then again it is not clear if the people of the Grand-Duchy would like this: there is an obvious risk that French would push the national Letzeburg language into a minority position.

Last but not least will both the Germans and the British, and surely also the Dutch, obstruct as long as possible the thought that Brussels becomes a part of France while staying at the same time the capital of the EU. It is then that the DC-solution – Brussels as a European district and city-state – will come up again. Not for the cheap of course: someone will have to put up the cash to help this new nation through its early years.

*  *  *  *  *

So the map of Europe might be redrawn, with the most likely outcome being that two new states – Flanders and Brussels – will replace the former Belgium. France will become larger, Germany slightly, maybe also Luxemburg. The Dutch may hope to find in Flanders a better ally in European discussions, and Britain a less Euro-enthusiast nation than the late Belgium.

The process might take a few years to come through. All regions of present-day Belgium are likely to lose – or will at least have to face up a lot of reforms they have up to now been pushing aside because of the nationalistic dispute. Flanders will have to change its language laws, and accept a French minority. Maybe even Germany should, in its new acquired piecelet of territory. Do not expect a clear winner of the affair.

The best hope is that a split will be for the most a rational matter, like it was – almost miraculously – in Czechoslovakia twenty years ago. Emotions will be present, inevitably, but if they remain more or less under control, the unstable situation of a country disappearing and a few new ones coming into live, should not make too much havoc. Of course nobody can guarantee that it will be that limited on the day the divorce starts. From then on it will be, as ever, wait and see what happens next...