Saturday, 28 August 2010

Background: Three years of immobility

 Herman Van Rompuy (l.) en Yves Leterme (r.) with  president Sarkozy, immediately after the former was nominated as the first president of the European Council in November 2009
In the three years between the electoral victory of the Yves Leterme and Bart De Wever in June 2007 and the new elections in June 2010, the federal government of Belgium was largely characterized by immobility. Only the banking crisis of 2008 was handled rather well by the government. In the end, in April 2008, the government fell because of the never-ending discussions about the electoral district of BHV.

It took a record number of 194 days to form a government after the elections of the 10th of June 2007. The election victory of the cartel of Flemish Christian-democrats (Yves Leterme) and Flemish nationalists (Bart Dewever) was based on a nationalist program of devolution of the federal institutions, which no French-speaking party was ready to accept. And it was this antagonism that gave the left-leaning French-speaking Christian democrats (CDH) the opportunity to hold off a centre-right coalition with the French-speaking liberals who clearly had won the elections in Wallony and Brussels.

In the end it was the outgoing prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who had lost the elections, who on the 21st of December 2007 formed a kind of provisional government, in which besides the two liberal and the two Christian-democratic parties, the French-speaking Parti Socialiste, another loser of the elections, made his entry. With the latter Verhofstadt convinced the CDH of Joëlle Milqiuet to accept the new government (see this blog for the year 2007)

Verhofstadt had announced from the beginning that he would give way to a definite government, led by Yves Leterme, at Easter 2008. He kept his word and became again the most popular politician in all opinion polls. He announced his own blueprint for a constitutional reform in early January, but it was largely ignored by the rest of the political class and forgotten as soon as Verhofstadt left the stage.

He also negotiated – in a so-called Council of Wise Men with elder statesmen – the beginning of a breakthrough for the institutional negotiations: a first package of smaller measures that had to be voted before the summer, and a second albeit vaguer one with principles for a larger agreement to be negotiated before the 21st of July.

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Yves Leterme (47) took over as a prime minister on the 20th of March 2008, with an enlarged government (with for the first time also a Minister of Migration, the liberal newcomer Annemie Turtelboom). One month earlier, on the 14th of February, he had been rushed to hospital with a critical hemorrhage in his stomach, but he recovered after two weeks.

From the beginning his government was beset by institutional discussions. NVA-leader Bart Dewever had refused to give his approval to the government declaration because he did not find enough promises of devolution in it. A new crisis about BHV at the end of April was brought under control but not resolved after ten days of deep tensions.

On June the 2nd the negotiations about Verhofstadts second package of institutional reform started. No agreement however was reached and on the 15 th of July Leterme handed in his resignation to king Albert. Critical voices had come up about the way he conducted the affairs. Verhofstadt first package of small reforms was never put the to the vote, and still has not been up to today.

King Albert refused the resignation of Leterme and send out three mediators – among whom Karl-Heinz Lambertz, the chief minister of the government of the 70.000 German-speaking citizens in the east of Belgium – to find a way out for September. After they did not succeed, Bart Dewever and his NVA on the 21st of September decided that they would no longer support the government. CD&V, under the pressure of Kris Peeters, its chief minister of the Flemish government, then broke up the cartel.

This was a victory for those who had opposed the cartel from the beginning inside the Flemish Christian-democrats. They had put forward the argument of the international banking crisis that had broken out since the Lehman Brothers bank in New York had gone bust on the 15th of September. Yves Leterme accepted to make the international crisis henceforth his priority and to let Kris Peeters and the regional authorities take care of the institutional refoms.

There followed, like elsewhere in Europe, some dramatic weeks for the government. The largest bank of Belgium, Fortis, was the first European bank to get into trouble and was only saved by selling it to the French BNP Paribas, when its shares had almost become worthless. Two other banks, Dexia and KBC, and an insurance company, Ethias, were saved by receiving billions of aid from the government.

Leterme gained some popularity in the crisis, as he and his minister of Finance, Didier Reynders, had taken the lead. But then half December, through a press message of his own cabinet, it was revealed that collaborators of Leterme might have tried to influence the court that had to decide about the legality of the Fortis-deal with BNP Paribas. Months later it would become clear that much more political wrangling and very personal disputes had taken place in that court around the Fortis-decision.

But when the president of the highest court in Belgium, Ghislain Londers, declared that he saw some indications of illegal meddling in the court decisions by the cabinet of the prime minister, Leterme was pressured by the other ministers – especially the Flemish liberals who never really accepted him as Verhofstadts successor – to step down. He resigned, together with Jo Vandeurzen, the Justice minister, and also a Flemish Christian-democrat, on Friday the 19th of December.

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It took 11 days to find a successor, the then 61 years old Herman Van Rompuy, who had been president of the Lower House since the summer of 2007. Van Rompuy, who’s political career had seemed in its last phase, had patiently waited until the leaders of his party had come out to ask him if he would like to be a prime minister. It was he who had brought out the declarations of Londers two weeks earlier into the public.

The mediation had been done by the 72-years old Wilfried Martens, who had been 13 years prime minister in the nineteen eighties and still was acting president of the European People’s Party. The King had called him back at Christmas Eve in Disneyland, where he was with his children and his new wife, former minister Miet Smet.

Van Rompuy decided that rest was what the Belgian political scenery most needed. He made ‘quite steadyness’ the slogan of his government. He did not brought up great ambitions, left the institutional negotiations to the regions (who did not make any progress), and achieved only what was possible: a few steps towards budgetary readjustment after the deficit had grown due to the banking crisis, and an agreement on a new and large regularization of illegal immigrants, a subject that had also been blocked by the permanent strife inside the government.

Van Rompuy reshuffled his government in July 2009 after regional and European elections. Yves Leterme became minister again, on Foreign Affairs. Then, half November, the European Council decided that Herman Van Rompuy would become its first permanent president, a function created by the Treaty of Lisbon. Van Rompuy handed his prime ministership over to Yves Leterme again on the 25th of November.

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Leterme was now able to cash in on the rest that his predecessor had brought back into the federal government. But not unlike him, the deeper mistrust inside his five-party-government prevented him of doing much. And Wilfried Martens, who again had been called in by King Albert to organize a smooth transfer of power, had obliged the new government to find a solution on the eternal and thorny BHV-issue for Easter 2010, as all institutional techniques to delay such a solution were coming to wore out.

To do so another former Christian democratic prime minister, 69-year old Jean-Luc Dehaene, was called up. Dehaene worked for weeks in extreme discretion, and laid half April 2010 a series of well-thought propositions with a delicate balance between Flemish and French-speaking aims on the table. Although it was not rejected, it was not accepted either.

This was enough for the party leader of the Flemish liberals, the 35-years old Alexander De Croo, to drop his support for the government. The new young party chief, who had been elected after an historic defeat of his party at the regional elections, did not want to see his image of freshness tarnished – one year before new elections - by the immobility of the Leterme-years. Seven weeks later the voters did not reward him and his party, far on the contrary, but the Flemish nationalists of Bart Dewever, who had been surfing on the nationalist waves created by the new BHV-disputes.

On the 26th of april Yves Leterme had once again to hand in his resignation to King Albert, the fifth and last time in three years. Leterme had restored in 2004 and 2007 the confidence of the Flemish voters in his party after decades of decline, by wooing the nationalist cause, almost in a populist way. The Belgian establishment resisted this vehemently, not the least in his own party, and he himself proved not capable of outmanoeuvring this resistances the way his predecessors as prime minister had done.

Finally he accepted the pressures inside his party to drop the nationalistic agenda, with the banking crisis as a good excuse. Leterme, a man with an incredible instinct for the electorate, seems to have felt that the voters would punish his own Christian democrats and hail in the nationalists. Two days after his resignation as prime minister, he also gave way as the leader of the Christian Democrats he had been since 2003.

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