Sunday, 29 August 2010

Dead end

After almost two months, the informal negotiations about institutional reform in Belgium – still the preliminary phase (without written agreements) for the real government negotiations – seemed to have ended in deadlock on Sunday morning at 3:30 a.m. The presidents of the seven parties and ‘preformateur’ Elio di Rupo ended ten hours of discussions and three days of political armswrestling without any agreement. They communicated – indirectly – to journalists that the impasse was now total.

Di Rupo went to the palace of Laeken at 6 pm on Sunday and stayed for three hours with King Albert. It was expected that he would hand down his resignation. He left the palace without saying anything to the press, but had previously announced a press conference for Monday shortly before noon. At 9:45 pm the palace issued a message in which it announced that the King had refused di Rupo's resignation and asked him to continue his mission, which he had accepted.

The deadlock was reached on Friday during discussions on the issue of the electoral district of BHV. A solution with most concessions on the French-speaking side seemed at hand, provided it would be linked at a large amount of extra subsidies – 500 million euro, a number to be reached in 2014, regardless of the huge budget deficit of 25 billion euro – for the mainly French-speaking capital region of Brussels.

Especially Bart de Wever at one moment seems to have had cold feet, fearing that he was conceding a lot of hard money to the Brussels region while having obtained only some principal agreement about the Finance Law (see previous blogs), and the responsibility of each region for its own (fiscal) revenues. In his last proposal of compromise Elio di Rupo wanted 300 million euro to be transferred from the federal to the Brussels level immediately as soon as the electoral district of BHV would have been split, as has been asked for decades by the Flemish.

After the failure on Sunday morning the preformateur communicated that he would wait some hours from ‘a signal’ of the parties around the table. Shortly before he went to the palace his spokeswoman let it be known that five parties had accepted Di Rupo’s last proposal, but not the Flemish nationalists and Christian democrats (NVA and CDV).

The deeper cause of this new crisis in the negotiations is of course a lack of mutual trust and a continuing inability to bridge the gap between the points of view of the Flemish and the French-speaking parties. Not without reason Elio di Rupo declared at the beginning of his mission that he would have to try ‘to reconcile the irreconcilables”.

That ambition may now be more utopian than two months ago. As one journalist remarked: “we lack the force to split up the country as much as, for the last three years, we lacked the force to make it work, and that is a dead end of a very annoying kind”

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Background: Three years of immobility

 Herman Van Rompuy (l.) en Yves Leterme (r.) with  president Sarkozy, immediately after the former was nominated as the first president of the European Council in November 2009
In the three years between the electoral victory of the Yves Leterme and Bart De Wever in June 2007 and the new elections in June 2010, the federal government of Belgium was largely characterized by immobility. Only the banking crisis of 2008 was handled rather well by the government. In the end, in April 2008, the government fell because of the never-ending discussions about the electoral district of BHV.

It took a record number of 194 days to form a government after the elections of the 10th of June 2007. The election victory of the cartel of Flemish Christian-democrats (Yves Leterme) and Flemish nationalists (Bart Dewever) was based on a nationalist program of devolution of the federal institutions, which no French-speaking party was ready to accept. And it was this antagonism that gave the left-leaning French-speaking Christian democrats (CDH) the opportunity to hold off a centre-right coalition with the French-speaking liberals who clearly had won the elections in Wallony and Brussels.

In the end it was the outgoing prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who had lost the elections, who on the 21st of December 2007 formed a kind of provisional government, in which besides the two liberal and the two Christian-democratic parties, the French-speaking Parti Socialiste, another loser of the elections, made his entry. With the latter Verhofstadt convinced the CDH of Joëlle Milqiuet to accept the new government (see this blog for the year 2007)

Verhofstadt had announced from the beginning that he would give way to a definite government, led by Yves Leterme, at Easter 2008. He kept his word and became again the most popular politician in all opinion polls. He announced his own blueprint for a constitutional reform in early January, but it was largely ignored by the rest of the political class and forgotten as soon as Verhofstadt left the stage.

He also negotiated – in a so-called Council of Wise Men with elder statesmen – the beginning of a breakthrough for the institutional negotiations: a first package of smaller measures that had to be voted before the summer, and a second albeit vaguer one with principles for a larger agreement to be negotiated before the 21st of July.

*   *   *   *   *

Yves Leterme (47) took over as a prime minister on the 20th of March 2008, with an enlarged government (with for the first time also a Minister of Migration, the liberal newcomer Annemie Turtelboom). One month earlier, on the 14th of February, he had been rushed to hospital with a critical hemorrhage in his stomach, but he recovered after two weeks.

From the beginning his government was beset by institutional discussions. NVA-leader Bart Dewever had refused to give his approval to the government declaration because he did not find enough promises of devolution in it. A new crisis about BHV at the end of April was brought under control but not resolved after ten days of deep tensions.

On June the 2nd the negotiations about Verhofstadts second package of institutional reform started. No agreement however was reached and on the 15 th of July Leterme handed in his resignation to king Albert. Critical voices had come up about the way he conducted the affairs. Verhofstadt first package of small reforms was never put the to the vote, and still has not been up to today.

King Albert refused the resignation of Leterme and send out three mediators – among whom Karl-Heinz Lambertz, the chief minister of the government of the 70.000 German-speaking citizens in the east of Belgium – to find a way out for September. After they did not succeed, Bart Dewever and his NVA on the 21st of September decided that they would no longer support the government. CD&V, under the pressure of Kris Peeters, its chief minister of the Flemish government, then broke up the cartel.

This was a victory for those who had opposed the cartel from the beginning inside the Flemish Christian-democrats. They had put forward the argument of the international banking crisis that had broken out since the Lehman Brothers bank in New York had gone bust on the 15th of September. Yves Leterme accepted to make the international crisis henceforth his priority and to let Kris Peeters and the regional authorities take care of the institutional refoms.

There followed, like elsewhere in Europe, some dramatic weeks for the government. The largest bank of Belgium, Fortis, was the first European bank to get into trouble and was only saved by selling it to the French BNP Paribas, when its shares had almost become worthless. Two other banks, Dexia and KBC, and an insurance company, Ethias, were saved by receiving billions of aid from the government.

Leterme gained some popularity in the crisis, as he and his minister of Finance, Didier Reynders, had taken the lead. But then half December, through a press message of his own cabinet, it was revealed that collaborators of Leterme might have tried to influence the court that had to decide about the legality of the Fortis-deal with BNP Paribas. Months later it would become clear that much more political wrangling and very personal disputes had taken place in that court around the Fortis-decision.

But when the president of the highest court in Belgium, Ghislain Londers, declared that he saw some indications of illegal meddling in the court decisions by the cabinet of the prime minister, Leterme was pressured by the other ministers – especially the Flemish liberals who never really accepted him as Verhofstadts successor – to step down. He resigned, together with Jo Vandeurzen, the Justice minister, and also a Flemish Christian-democrat, on Friday the 19th of December.

*   *   *   *   *

It took 11 days to find a successor, the then 61 years old Herman Van Rompuy, who had been president of the Lower House since the summer of 2007. Van Rompuy, who’s political career had seemed in its last phase, had patiently waited until the leaders of his party had come out to ask him if he would like to be a prime minister. It was he who had brought out the declarations of Londers two weeks earlier into the public.

The mediation had been done by the 72-years old Wilfried Martens, who had been 13 years prime minister in the nineteen eighties and still was acting president of the European People’s Party. The King had called him back at Christmas Eve in Disneyland, where he was with his children and his new wife, former minister Miet Smet.

Van Rompuy decided that rest was what the Belgian political scenery most needed. He made ‘quite steadyness’ the slogan of his government. He did not brought up great ambitions, left the institutional negotiations to the regions (who did not make any progress), and achieved only what was possible: a few steps towards budgetary readjustment after the deficit had grown due to the banking crisis, and an agreement on a new and large regularization of illegal immigrants, a subject that had also been blocked by the permanent strife inside the government.

Van Rompuy reshuffled his government in July 2009 after regional and European elections. Yves Leterme became minister again, on Foreign Affairs. Then, half November, the European Council decided that Herman Van Rompuy would become its first permanent president, a function created by the Treaty of Lisbon. Van Rompuy handed his prime ministership over to Yves Leterme again on the 25th of November.

*   *   *   *   *

Leterme was now able to cash in on the rest that his predecessor had brought back into the federal government. But not unlike him, the deeper mistrust inside his five-party-government prevented him of doing much. And Wilfried Martens, who again had been called in by King Albert to organize a smooth transfer of power, had obliged the new government to find a solution on the eternal and thorny BHV-issue for Easter 2010, as all institutional techniques to delay such a solution were coming to wore out.

To do so another former Christian democratic prime minister, 69-year old Jean-Luc Dehaene, was called up. Dehaene worked for weeks in extreme discretion, and laid half April 2010 a series of well-thought propositions with a delicate balance between Flemish and French-speaking aims on the table. Although it was not rejected, it was not accepted either.

This was enough for the party leader of the Flemish liberals, the 35-years old Alexander De Croo, to drop his support for the government. The new young party chief, who had been elected after an historic defeat of his party at the regional elections, did not want to see his image of freshness tarnished – one year before new elections - by the immobility of the Leterme-years. Seven weeks later the voters did not reward him and his party, far on the contrary, but the Flemish nationalists of Bart Dewever, who had been surfing on the nationalist waves created by the new BHV-disputes.

On the 26th of april Yves Leterme had once again to hand in his resignation to King Albert, the fifth and last time in three years. Leterme had restored in 2004 and 2007 the confidence of the Flemish voters in his party after decades of decline, by wooing the nationalist cause, almost in a populist way. The Belgian establishment resisted this vehemently, not the least in his own party, and he himself proved not capable of outmanoeuvring this resistances the way his predecessors as prime minister had done.

Finally he accepted the pressures inside his party to drop the nationalistic agenda, with the banking crisis as a good excuse. Leterme, a man with an incredible instinct for the electorate, seems to have felt that the voters would punish his own Christian democrats and hail in the nationalists. Two days after his resignation as prime minister, he also gave way as the leader of the Christian Democrats he had been since 2003.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


Negotiations between Flemish and French-speaking parties for a new government seem to have reached a breakthrough on Tuesday evening with an agreement on the principles of a new Finance Law. But one day later different lectures appeared in the press, on an agreement of which there is no written version

Shortly before 7 pm on Thursday the 24th, news got out that 'preformateur' Elio di Rupo (smiling on this belga-picture, taken shortly after the end of the meeting) and the presidents of the seven political parties that try to form a government had reached an agreement after seven hours of intense discussions at the cabinet of the outgoing under-minister Melchior Wathelet in the rue de la Loi. As the odds had been very bad, there was rapidly a sense of euphoria spreading when the news came out.

The Finance Law that regulates the distribution of money between the federal and regional authorities is indeed the core of each institutional reform. It had been the most difficult issue in the government negotiations up to now. An agreement, even if only about the principles, means that the main hurdle towards a compromise between Flemish and French-speaking communities has been taken. Formal negotiations – up to now the talks have only been informal – could start maybe as soon as next week. Optimists saw a government in the making before the end of September.

Hours after the agreement details emerged. It became clear that twelve principles were agreed about the Finance Law, linking more fiscal responsibility for the regions to the upholding of all forms of solidarity. Most commentators noted that many of these principles are contradictory and have to specified.

Besides, as the agreement of Tuesday is, like all the previous ones, not on paper yet, it became clear Wednesday morning that different versions were leaked to the Flemish and French-speaking press, with differences on quite important elements and different kind of comments. According to the Flemish negotiators, who felt most in need of defending themselves afterwards, the details of the agreement will be worked out before the end of the global negotiations.

On Wednesday and tomorrow the negotiators were to tackle the highly symbolic issue of the electoral district of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde, the issue on which the previous government of Yves Leterme fell apart (see this blog on September the 6th 2007, nothing has changed about this question since). Although the issue remains thorny, it was expected that ‘preformateur’ di Rupo – who has been praised for the way he lead the negotiations the last few weeks – would be capable to solve it, by linking it to extra subsidies for the Brussels region.

If that will be the case towards the end of the week, the institutional negotiations – that have lasted two months – can give way for government negotiations about the reduction of the budget deficit of 25 billion euro towards 2015. As this is a global amount for all the authorities in Belgium – from the villages and cities to the federal level – it is inevitable that the issue of the Finance Law will come up once again.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Background: the parliamentary elections of June the 13th

Parliamentary elections on the 13th of June caused a political earthquake in Belgium. In Flanders for the first time the Flemish nationalist – who before never were second or even third party – suddenly became the biggest party, far ahead of the other parties. In French-speaking Belgium voters rallied around their traditional stronghold, the Parti Socialiste.

Like always Flemish parties almost exclusively presented candidates in the Flemish districts and Brussels, whereas the French-speaking parties did the same in Wallony and Brussels. The political cleavages have become so strong that 12 parties are represented in the Lower House of the Parliament, of which eight have less than 15 of the 150 seats, but together hold more than 60 seats. The results are shown in this table and can be consulted in detail on the site of the Lower House.

Results for the Lower House of Belgium, in seats
(between brackets seats won or lost  compared to 2007)

NVA  (Flemish nationalists)      27 (+20)
PS (French socialists)               26 (+6)
MR (French liberals)                18 (-5)
CDV (Flemisch chr democrats)17 (-6)
VLD (Flemish liberals)             13 (-5)
SPA (Flemish socialists)           13 (-)
VB (Flemish extr right)             12 (-5)
CDH (French chr democrats)     9 (-1)
Ecolo (French greens)                8 (-)
Groen (Flemish greens)              5 (+1)
LDD (Flemish populists)            1 (-5)
PP (French populists)                1 (+1)

The victory of the Flemish nationalist of NVA was even stronger than the opinion polls had predicted. It never happened before since 1945 that one party won (the equivalent of) 20 seats in one Belgian election. The NVA now has four times as much seats as before the election. With 765.000 personal votes the NVA- leader, Bart De Wever, a 39-year old historian from the city of Antwerp, registered the third largest score since the introduction of regional districts in 1979.

The bill was footed by all the other parties, especially the Christian democrats, who were the biggest last time, the liberals (who seem to have been punished for causing the fall of the government) and the extreme right. The Greens and the social-democrats stagnated.

In French-speaking Belgium the liberals also lost heavily. The voters there brought the Parti Socialiste to more than 35 % of the votes, a score reminiscent of its high days of the nineteen eighties. At almost 59 its leader Elio di Rupo, a son of an Italian immigrant and the mayor of the city of Mons, was already before the elections the most likely candidate to become the next prime minister.

The paradox of this big shake-up was that the air looked more cleared than before the elections. Flanders had unequivocally made a choice for a rather right wing leader with a nationalist program, French-speaking Belgium had returned to its old left wing preference. The division of the country, fueled indeed for many decades by differing economic performances and electoral behavior, was never more obvious.

In a sense both parts of the country had chosen one uncontested leader to take up the difficult negotiations with the other community in the country. It was now up to De Wever and di Rupo to guide the country out of the mess it had fallen into.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Turning around

Elio di Rupo, the 59-years old president of the French-speaking Parti socialiste(on the right in the picture), will meet with delegations from seven political parties again this afternoon. Di Rupo was made ‘preformateur’ by king Albert II on the 8th of July, to see if an agreement between Flemish and French-speaking parties in Belgium was possible before a new government could be formed.

Di Rupo succeeded Bart De Wever, the 39-years old president of the Flemish nationalist party NVA (left in the picture). He is the undisputed winner of the federal parliamentary elections of June the 13th in the Flemish electoral districts of the country. De Wever was sent out by King Albert as an ‘informateur’ on the 17th of June. He immediately took up contact with the undisputed winner in French-speaking Belgium, Elio di Rupo.

He offered him almost certainly the job of the next prime minister, that the NVA could claim as the largest group in the Lower House. But doing this he in a sense obliged di Rupo to put an offer on the table that the Flemish parties – especially the nationalists – cannot refuse, or at least not immediately. Their main demand is a far-reaching devolution.

In the weeks after his nomination di Rupo brought seven parties around the table: socialists, greens and Christian-democrats from both parts of the country and the NVA. These are also the parties that make up the regional governments of the country since the regional elections of last year. Together they have 105 seats of the 150 of the Lower House, more than the two-third majority needed to make constitutional changes. Paradoxically it is still unclear if these parties are ready to form a government together. Especially the Frenchs-speaking greens (8 seats) seem to hesitate after their election defeat in June.

On the Flemish side it is becoming clear that the Christian democrats (CDV) are siding again with the Flemish nationalist. The former coalition of both (‘cartel’), which led to the electoral breakthrough of 2007, but broke apart two years later, is restored all but in name. With a difference: in 2007 the Christian-democrats were in the lead and both together obtained 30 %. Now the nationalists are the biggest and both together command 46 % of the Flemish votes.

At the Christian-democrat side the many mayors of the party – who were elected with the cartel in the local elections of 2006 and have to stand for re-election in 2012 – insist on working closely together with the nationalists. The prime minister of the Flemish government, Kris Peeters, seems to work in the same direction. His goal is to become the undisputed new leader of the Christian-democrats and to gain through institutional reform more power for the Flemish government, where the Christian-democrats are still in the lead.

 Di Rupo brought up some far-reaching proposals about devolution into the negotiations, including some elements of the labour market and health policies. About 15 million euro of budgets would be transferred from the federal to the regional authorities. This would have been unthinkable three years ago and represented some fiddling at the absolute taboo of French-speaking parties: the devolution of social security.

But De Wever and his Christian democratic allies had the impression – in discussions that have remained informal, as no texts have been brought up to now - that their counterparts were offering the Flemish a large transfer of budgets, but without the competence to change the rules to spend it. Therefore the NVA-leader proposed on the 16th of August to discuss the Finance Law, the law that regulates the competences to tax citizens and the partition of tax revenues for the federal level and the regions.

Di Rupo reacted angrily, as he was convinced that De Wever had previously, in an agreement between both, accepted not to discuss that highly complicated and very sensitive matter, but to wait until the first budget of the new government. King Albert then intervened to bring the parties around the table again.

The discussions started Saturday anew, but seem to have been unstructured, rather chaotic and without progress. Today or in the next few days it should become clear if a breakthrough lies around the corner, or that the mission of di Rupo has come to an end. Seventy-one days after the elections, the real formation still has to begin.

Crisis in Belgium (revisited)

It is time to start up this blog again, as Belgium is heading towards a another political crisis, deeper maybe than the one of 2007. I started my story three years ago as an exercise in blogging and reporting in English (and for my students in journalism at that time) and ‘in an attempt to explain to people abroad why my country, Belgium, is going through one of its most difficult political crisis ever’. The latter motive still matters, as I learned from some surprising reactions once I stopped blogging in december 2007 when ‘the political crisis was over, for the time being’. I hope that, among others, the trader from Hongkong, who had to report about investment opportunities in Belgium for his bank, and the political scientist from Vancouver will be interested again. Like the previous time I will start with the latest news, and try to catch up with events between 2007 and today in short briefings I hope to publish in the coming weeks. And of course many things that I wrote in 2007 can still be repeated today, although – as we will learn – the deep economic crisis has changed a lot of things.