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.