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.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Creeping ahead

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.  

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

No new elections yet

After twelve days the new Royal negotiator, Johan Vande Lanotte, announced on Tuesday evening that he was making slow progress in his efforts to form a new government in Belgium.  As he indicated that he would need still at least ten days, it is now certain that no new elections can take place before the middle of January 2011.

Vande Lanotte (picture from belga news agency), a former president of the Flemish socialist party, reported about his mission at 4 pm on Tuesday. He left King Albert in the palace of Laeken one and a half hour later. Shortly after 6 pm he read a brief statement to the press in the Senate. It was the first time he broke the self-imposed radio-silence that he had promised when he was appointed on the 21st of September.

‘The way towards an agreement is still long and uncertain’, he said, ‘but part of the way to restore confidence has been traveled’. Vande Lanotte will see each of the seven party-presidents around the negotiating table before the weekend. After that he hopes to receive an advice about the numbers of the new Finance Law from experts of the National Bank and the Bureau du Plan.

The royal mediator announced again that he would remain extremely discreet in his comments in the next weeks. He indicated that he will continue at least until the 12th of November, which will be a moment to evaluate the situation. This means that – given that the organization of new elections takes at least 40 days – no new elections will take place before Christmas, which in practice means that it is impossible to hold these before the 16th of January. To reach the latter date, parliament should be dissolved on the 7th of December at the latest.

In the first days of Vande Lanottes mission several leaders of the Flemish Nationalists – including their president Bart De Wever - indicated that this round of negotiations was, as far as they were concerned, the last before new elections. Since then Vande Lanotte has brought twice the main rivals, De Wever and his French-speaking socialist counterpart Elio di Rupo, together around a good meal. No other comments have been heard.