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.