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.