Saturday, 18 December 2010


Negotiations for a new Belgian government are becoming extremely foggy. This week some hope flared up after it seemed that a first vague agreement on the Finance Law had been reached. But it rapidly proved to be no real breakthrough. The royal negotiator then decided, after briefing the King, to take care of his sick mother again.
The week started tumultuous when the German weekly Der Spiegel published an interview with Bart De Wever. In it the leader of the Flemish nationalists expressed his deeper feelings again, about ‘Belgium as the sick man of Europe’ and ‘the Walloon economy being addicted to infusions of Flemish subsidies’. The interview caused some predictable commotion, as it is not done to attack each other that hard during delicate negotiations.
De Wever defended his stance by saying he has to take up the rare occasions when foreign media want to hear the Flemish point of view, instead of always reading the Brussels French-speaking newspapers. In the end his counterpart Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists, did not want to pick up the provocation. With a generous smile he asked ‘everybody to seek an agreement instead of spreading insults’.
It seemed a good sign. Still better: on Tuesday, the four Flemish parties communicated that in their talks with royal negotiator Johan Vande Lanotte a tentative agreement had been reached on the new Finance Law, the main stumbling block in the negotiations. And on Wednesday, the three French-speaking parties, in their separate talks with Vande Lanotte, did not immediately reject this new proposal.
It probably all had to do with the announcement on Tuesday of the rating agency Standard’s and Poor that it might downgrade its score on Belgian bonds in the near future if there still would be no government. The first commotion of this news went away towards the end of the week, as the spread between Belgian and German long-term bonds on the financial markets fell once again. That did not refrain José Manual Barroso, the president of the European Commission, to warn again on Friday that Belgium needs a government soon.
On Thursday the newspapers in the country expressed for the first time since long some slight optimism about the negotiations. But it rapidly seeped through that the hailed new proposal on the Finance Law was nothing more than an agreement on six very general and sometimes contradictory principles. And the three francophone parties had proposed amendments on at least two of these six principles.
Di Rupo indeed had literally commented on Wednesday that it was ‘a good base for discussion, but not yet an agreement’. In the general confusion nobody mentioned that three months ago a similar kind of agreement had been reached on similar general principles, but that this hed lead to nowhere.
In their thirst for some positive news the media also announced that negotiator Vande Lanotte would tackle other institutional issues from Friday onwards, and that he would put up a summary proposal on all institutional questions somewhere next week. But it became rapidly clear that on the contrary new questions were put on the table about the so-called agreement on the Finance Law, especially the question of extra subsidies for the Brussels region and even the chronic financial deficit of the French-speaking Community, a classic of all institutional reforms of the past.
On Friday morning, on the 57th day of his mission, Vande Lanotte went to the castle of Laken, to report to King Albert. And it was not really a surprise that a few hours later he let it be known that the health situation of his ailing old mother had deteriorated again, that he was travelling to the hospital in Ypres where she is treated, and that all talks were suspended until at least Sunday evening.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Time for grandma

The negotiations for a new Belgian government were suspended at 3 pm this afternoon, until Monday, it was announced. The reason given for this is that the health situation of the mother of the royal negotiator, Johan Vande Lanotte, has seriously deteriorated.
Vande Lanotte saw the leaders of the French-speaking parties together on Thursday morning for no longer than one hour. Afterwards nobody made any statement. At 2 pm a so-called technical meeting started between delegates of the Flemish parties, but which the party presidents could attend if they wished so. They all four showed up.
After one hour it was Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist, who came to the press to read a statement. ‘The royal negotiator has asked me to make the very sad announcement that the health situation of his mother has suddenly and rapidly deteriorated. Therefore the negociations will be suspended until Monday.’
De Wever and the three other party presidents afterwards continued their ‘technical’ talks, in the absence of Vande Lanotte. No further statements were made. For observators it was especially remarkable that even if the illness is genuine, it was De Wever who read the statement and not someone from Vande Lanottes own socialist party. Relations between the Flemish nationalists and socialists have been hampered by a series of incidents the last few weeks.
On Wednesday Vande Lanotte had met the four Flemish party-presidents. De Wever had rejected his proposal for a new Finance Law based on a system of tax credits for the regions. He demanded a proposal based on the so-called split rate. The technical working group on Thursday would have to achieve this. Meanwhile it was clear that the new twist in the discussions would need some (difficult to achieve) assent from the French-speaking parties.
Some commentators have expressed their impression that the only thing that keeps the seven parties around the table these days is that they fear to become the main culprit of eventually negative events once the negotiations have definitely broken down.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

A tale of impotence

After 175 days of talks and hesitations the negotiations for a new Belgian government seem to have entered the realm of absurdities. Each day it gets more obvious that the two leaders who were raised on the shield by the voters in the parliamentary elections of June the 13th are too afraid of their own shadow to make a compromise. New elections are almost certainly inevitable.
Johan Vande Lanotte, the former president of the small Flemish socialist party, on Monday starts his 46th day of negotiations. At 3 pm he will see together for the second time the four Flemish parties that seek a new institutional reform. So far he has not succeeded in bringing together again around the same table the seven parties that since the elections continuously have said they want to form a new coalition. It is now a full three months since they sat the last time together.
Vande Lanotte attempted to start a breakthrough last week. He convinced Elio di Rupo, the president of the French-speaking socialists and the triumphant winner of the elections in Wallonia and Brussels, to come out with a new initiative. Di Rupo had been silent, lethargic and even obstructive since his own attempt to form the government ended in failure at the end of August.
On Wednesday the 1st of December Di Rupo gave an interview to four newspapers, in which he made a new proposal about the Finance Law, the key-issue in the negotiations. He offered the regions a fiscal autonomy of 43 %, slightly more than the 40 % he had been ready to accept in earlier talks. And this proposal was, like the previous ones, wrapped in conditions about limiting fiscal competition between the regions.
For the umpteenth time the man who has been the favourite to become the next prime minister thus demonstrated that he is strong in rhetoric about wanting a real decentralisation inside Belgium, but short in measures. In other words: he wants to create the impression that is needed to be acceptable as prime minister to the Flemish parties, but does not take any risk in creating some distance to the lobbies in his own party.
His Flemish counterpart, Bart De Wever, the leader of the nationalist party and the big winner of the elections in Flanders, reacted within the same day in two short television interviews. He said he was ‘rather sceptical’ about the new proposals. And he let journalists understand that he was annoyed about the way the proposal was announced to him, via the media
On Sunday De Wever, in another television interview, made the astonishing remark ‘that he still was unable to give a definite opinion as he had had no written text of the proposal’. He did not make clear if he had made any serious attempt to demand it. Meanwhile on Saturday and Sunday, he also ventilated his opinions about the migration question, another hotly disputed topic between Flemish and French-speaking political parties. What he said was clearly no attempt to compromise on that issue.
So De Wever continued to offer the remarkable image of the leader of the biggest party in the country standing aside and observing and analysing the situation without taking much initiative or tabling proposals to solve problems. In that sense the resemblance with the behaviour of di Rupo the last three months is striking. One should expect the winners of the elections to take the lead, to try to become the next prime minister, to show the nation were they want to go and what they want to achieve, but neither seems to want to.
The more optimistic explanation of this attitude of di Rupo and De Wever is that both are playing poker, in the hope that the other one will blink first. The more probable reason is that both have lacked imagination and creativity to take the opportunity they had, and since then have proven unable to get rid of the fear of their own shadow. Almost six months after the elections the Belgian voters who had believed they had chosen two undisputed leaders, have now to confront the reality of general political impotence.
The good news – not the least for the financial markets that early last week for two days pushed up interest rates of Belgian government bonds - is that in these circumstances a break-up of the country is less likely. Neither of the two main characters must be considered capable of handling such a radical reform. The bad news is that Belgium is probably heading for new elections, somewhere towards the end of January or the beginning of February.