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.


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