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.


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