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...

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Still the same

(The Feast of Wallony in Namur: fine weather and no enflaming statements)

Negotiations for a new Belgian government are still not making progress. The only positive news is that after a day of acrimonious accusations on Thursday, a semblance of calm between the two main actors seems to have returned.

The beginning of autumn next Tuesday will also be day 100 since the elections of June the 13th. And on Friday the 24th it will be a month since the last progress in the negotiations between the NVA of Bart De Wever and the PS of Elio di Rupo was made.

The two mediators, Andre Flahaut and Danny Pieters, went to King Albert on Friday evening to report on their discussions with the seven party leaders of the socialists, the Christian democrats, the greens and the Flemish nationalists. In fact they had very few to announce. It seems to have taken ten days since their nomination only to bring the main characters – di Rupo and De Wever – back around the same table.

Once this happened, on Wednesday the 15th, both party leaders communicated that they agreed on a common approach about the negotiations. But both had once again a different version about what was agreed.

This led some spokesmen of the PS on Thursday afternoon to communicate to the media that they were ‘fed up’ with the NVA. Whereupon the party of De Wever issued a press statement in which it asked when the PS would finally prove that it was no longer defending ‘pocket money federalism’;

The two mediators asked everybody on Friday morning to ‘restore discretion’. It helped. On Saturday at the traditional Walloon Feast in Namur – a kind of national day of that region – no provocative statements were heard. And common working groups of the two parties about specific issues of institutional reform continue their work.

Di Rupo and De Wever seem to distrust each other wholeheartedly, or may play poker to see who has the strongest nerves. Both are progressing in opinion polls – that are, like the elections itself split up between the regions - because of their seemingly uncompromising attitude. The beginning of the new week could bring a definite return to point zero. Or, unexpectedly, still a small breakthrough?


Sunday, 12 September 2010

The sound of silence

(The Law Street, with parliament and the ministeries 80 years ago, almost as quiet and empty as these days. The three regions celebrate all their Monument day these weeks.)

Two weeks after the talks to form a new government in Belgium broke down, nothing seems to happen. The most optimistic guess is that behind the scenes new talks are carefully prepared.

The new ‘mediators’, André Flahaut and Danny Pieters, have now for almost one week been consulting all the seven parties that participated in the last round of negotiations. According to some sources they are now preparing a set of propositions to start negotiations again. And they are likely to meet the two main characters of the play, Bart De Wever and Elio Di Rupo, together next Tuesday or Wednesday.

Both Flahaut and Pieters took a lot of time to finish off their list of consultations. For many this was a sign that they are not really in charge, just filling the scenery as long as the main actors have not cleaned up the ruins of the previous round of talks. But among collaborators of both parliament-presidents it could be heard that the gap between Flemish and Ffrench-speaking Belgians remains immensely large.

The remarkable thing is that the two men still do not consult other parties than the seven who sat down in the first place. This seems to have been their marching order from King Albert last week. Meanwhile the siren songs of the liberals – especially Didier Reynders’ MR - who have been excluded from the talks up to now, sound every day sweeter and sweeter.

Different declarations from Flemish Christian democrats made it clear that not only the three other French-speaking parties want to keep the liberals out. For the party of Wouter Beke and Kris Peeters, who have almost blindly been following the Flemish nationalist up to now, a mainly leftwing coalition without the liberals seems a way to placate a little bit the union wing of the party, who the last few years never liked new institutional reforms.

Newspapers started this week to speculate about all kind of scenario’s for a split-up of the country. But these were soon put aside in the columns by the huge and shocking pedophilia-scandal in the Catholic Church. Nothing to be nationalistic about that …

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Cooling down

At 9:30 pm on Saturday King Albert II appointed André Flahaut (see the belga-picture), the president of the Lower House, and Danny Pieters, his collegue at the Senate, as mediators in the search for a new Belgian government. The move signals that time is needed to heal the wounds of the previous round of negotiations.

In the 24 hours between the resignation of Elio di Rupo and the new appointments, the King consulted the presidents of the seven parties who had participated in the failed search for a new institutional reform the last two months. The appointment of the presidents of both chambers of parliament is normally a classic move to take some time. By appointing them Albert also accepted definitely the resignation of di Rupo.

Flahaut, 55, is a former minister of Defence and a socialist from the province of Brabant wallon. For a long time he also led the study center of the PS, which made him the chief of the cabinet of the two predecessors of di Rupo at the head of the PS. Danny Pieters, 53, is a professor in Law from the Catholic University of Leuven, specialised in social security (and the ways to regionalise it). He was elected on June the 10th for the NVA of Bart De Wever.

Both men have the capacities to do much more about institutional reform than just keeping the shop open. But it is as yet not clear if their party presidents will allow them to do more than that. Meanwhile it becomes less and less certain that Belgium will have a new government before Parliament reconvenes in five weeks time.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Game over

Elio di Rupo, the ‘preformateur’ in Belgiums government negotiations, finally handed in his resignation to King Albert on Friday the 3th of September. The King is now looking for a way out, and might send Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish nationalists (NVA, see picture) into the field.

In the five days since he failed to reach a compromise, the leader of the French-speaking socialists explored multiple ways to change the opinion of the two Flemish parties that had rejected his proposals. He corrected these only marginally, having probably sensed that the limit had been reached for the two other francophone parties, the greens (Ecolo) and the Christian democrats (CDH).

By suggesting to invite the social partners into the play last Sunday, the King steered his ‘preformateur’ towards increasing the pressure on the Flemish Christian democrats (CDV). In the past they were always sensitive for the argument that nationalist causes should not undermine the functioning of Belgium. So di Rupo may have asked both the nation employers federation and the Christian labour union (the largest in the country and very influential in both CDV and CDH) to plead for a more moderate stance.

He himself went on Wednesday to see Kris Peeters, the Christian-democratic chief minister of the Flemish regional government, apparently hoping that he would be less eager to follow the nationalists than the interim-president of the party, Wouter Beke.

But the attempt backfired, as the CDV is still traumatized by its lowest election score ever (17 %, the first time it went under 20 %) on June the 10th. Many voices in the party explain this defeat by saying that CDV and its prime minister abandoned their nationalist profile that had brought them huge electoral victories between 2004 and 2007.

So on Friday morning a few bitter statements from French-speaking politicians – threatening that if these proposals were rejected, all concessions of the last week would be taken back – were already indicating that for di Rupo it was ‘game over’. A formal meeting of all seven parties in the afternoon only confirmed this.

King Albert announced at about 7 pm on Friday that di Rupo had proposed his resignation but that the King would keep this proposal on hold, pending a new round of royal consultations with the party presidents over the weekend.

Rumours of a change of the scenery were already spreading during last week. Bart De Wever, the NVA-leader, seems to have had contacts with the French-speaking liberals of the MR, led by the caretaking Finance minister Didier Reynders, although the latter denied this. The rumours were certainly not contradicted by a statement of Reynders on Wednesday, in which he proposed a radical institutional reform with elements that sounded like music for NVA and CDV.

A coalition of the five biggest parties after the last election – the liberals of both sides, the PS, the NVA and CDV – would have 101 seats in the lower House, just enough for a two third majority. De Wever cannot but like this, as the liberals are nearer to his own centre-right economic principles.

In such a coalition he can also drop the Flemish socialist, with whom the relations have become more and more tense. That is because of the preparation for the battle for the city of Antwerp in the local elections of 2012. De Wever will there almost certainly be the challenger of the present socialist mayor, Patrick Janssens.

One problem with the MR though is that Olivier Maingain, the leader of the Brussels nationalists who leads the party in the capital, might become an obstacle for a solution on the electoral district of BHV. But this is compensated by the fact that the CDH are set aside. Their leader, Joëlle Milquet, has been a pain in the ass for almost everybody – and especially the Flemish parties -in the last three years.

If this scenario should be tested, the king shall have to send out De Wever to obtain it. Didier Reynders is probably unacceptable for di Rupo, except if the former is ready to give way for the prime ministership to the latter, which seems rather unlikely. If De Wever is sent into the field, he too shall try to lure the PS-leader in this way. Indeed di Rupo has nothing else to gain in the new scenario, in which he also has to break-up the unofficial cartel with Milquet that brought him back into the play and into the government after his big election defeat in 2007.

Personal rivalries, party turf wars and nationalist tensions – and in the background a cacophony of media shouting - make a cocktail that seems all too similar to the one of 2007, but with a more poisonous stroke: even if the De Wever is genuinely honest during negotiations, there is also a logic taking hold that each scenario that is tried and fails makes the divorce of Belgium more worth a try, especially in Flanders. The other parties are well aware of this, and that makes them every minute more suspicious about the big winner of the elections in Flanders.

In the meantime there is still no word said about the 22 billion euro to be found to reduce the budget deficit towards the year 2015. That is about 13 % of all government expenditures in Belgium. The good news that tax revenues are growing faster than expected this year is only a small consolation.