Thursday, 27 January 2011

Square one again

King Albert II will start consultations again today about the way to form a new Belgian government.  The attempt to make a centre-left coalition of seven parties finally collapsed yesterday after 227 days of negotiations.
For the second time this month the royal negotiator Johan Vande Lanotte (picture) offered his resignation to king Albert on Wednesday at 4:30 pm. This time the king accepted. Vande Lanotte, who had been appointed 97 days ago, explained in a press conference afterwards that ‘too few progress had been possible.’
When Vande Lanotte met with the three participating French-speaking parties together on Tuesday (socialists, Christian-democrats and greens) they refused to take any new initiative if the Flemish parties did not make a proposal first. During his talks with the four Flemish parties on Wednesday (the same three ideologies and the Flemish nationalists), Vande Lanotte saw the Christian democrats bringing in such a new proposal. But as it contained a far reaching devolution of health policies, it was unacceptable for the French-speaking parties.
Most press comments this morning agree that the seven-party-formula is now dead. It was started immediately after the elections of June the 13th last year in the belief that a stable federal government should ‘mirror’ the composition of the regional governments that were set up after the regional elections of June 2009.  Taken together the seven parties also had a two third majority necessary to realise constitutional reforms. Since the end of August 2010 the seven parties never again sat together around the table (about the deeper reasons behind the stalemate, see previous blogs: A tale of impotence;,Old quarrel, new twist 1 and 2).
King Albert will now probably explore the few options left. The most likely is that he will send out a French-speaking liberal: Didier Reynders, the finance minister, or Louis Michel, the former minister of Foreign Affairs. The liberals have stayed out of the negotiations up to now, as they had lost the elections and the French-speaking socialists of the PS had systematically excluded them.
The formula’s to try are but a few. The French-speaking parties advocate a coalition without the Flemish nationalists of the NVA, the big winner of the elections. That would then most likely be a coalition of the three traditional parties (liberals, socialists, Christian-democrats) of both sides of the language divide. But they do not have a two third majority, and it is highly unlikely that the Flemish Christian democrats will enter into a government without the NVA.
Another option might be a government without the two winners of the elections, who have spoiled their own victory by standing aside and waiting for so long (for whatever reason). It would be another seven-party-coalition of Christian democrats, liberals, greens and the Flemish socialists (who would then have to propose the prime minister). Together these parties have only 83 of the 150 seats in the Lower house, a coalition with a thin majority that could develop a socio-economic policy, but no institutional reforms.
So it is more and more likely that new elections will be the outcome. If so, the big question to answer is  if the Flemish nationalists will opt for an independent Flanders as their main proposal, or just will try to obtain an absolute majority in Flanders in close link with the Christian-democrats.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A big demonstration, but for what?

About 35.000 people demonstrated on Sunday in Brussels to urge politicians to form a new government in Belgium. It was a remarkable success for an initiative that had been taken only a few weeks ago by five students, who via Facebook made clear that they were fed up with the stalemate in political negociations.
Although it was cold and it rained in Brussels, many young people had come to the city to show their sympathy for the action of the students. Their message wanted to be non-political, just a urge to politicians to do what they were elected for.
In the demonstration many Belgian flags were carried and many older citizens were seen who wanted especially to show their desire to uphold Belgium as a nation. For these people the Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever was clearly the bad guy. But most of the demonstrators seem to have been rather unpolitical and happy that they were with so many to be present.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Menage à trois

King Albert reappointed Johan Vande Lanotte in the late afternoon to seek a way out of the political crisis in Belgium. He will have to work ‘in close collaboration with the leaders of the two greatest parties’, Bart De Wever and Elio di Rupo. On Monday King Albert had already asked outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme to take the ‘necessary budgetary measures’ to calm down the financial markets.
Johan Vande Lanotte, the former president of the Flemish socialist party (SPA), arrived this afternoon at 5 pm at the palace of Laeken. Last Thursday, on his 77th day as a royal negotiator, he had handed in his resignation to the King, after he seemingly had failed to reach an agreement about starting negotiations about the proposal of 62 pages that he had submitted to seven parties (the Flemish nationalist NVA, the two socialist, Christian democratic and green parties).
The King had not accepted the resignation, but had kept it ‘into consideration’. Vande Lanotte was expected to come back on Monday afternoon. But the meeting was postponed, as he had made up new contacts with the two main antagonists, Elio di Rupo and Bart De Wever. Late on Monday Vande Lanottes old mother, who’s fragile and deteriorating health situation had already caused a few delays in the negotiations, passed away in a hospital in Ypres. Although it was feared that the outgoing royal negotiator would not be able to go the palace Tuesday afternoon, he finally arrived at the moment announced.
 Afterwards the palace issued a statement in which it said that the King had asked Vande Lanotte ‘to take every useful initiative, in a special dialogue with the presidents of the two largest parties, in order to end the present political impasse as soon as possible. Only in this way the well-being of our citizens and of the country will be preserved.’
Later in the evening it was revealed that Vande Lanotte will continue to work on the basis of his proposal, but that De Wever and di Rupo will lead the negotiations with the Flemish and the French-speaking parties around the table respectively. The three will meet on Wednesday to work out their mission.
The new twist in the negotiations came after days of political confusion, in which Bart De Wever proposed to take the lead alone or together with Elio di Rupo, in which di Rupo refused this, but made an unclear opening towards the liberals, in which the French-speaking liberals reacted eagerly, the Flemish ones hesitantly, in which finally everyone seemed more or less to accept the scenario of the seven parties again.
Besides it became obvious on Monday that the financial markets had now put Belgium into the category of major-risk countries of the Eurozone, due to its huge global debt and its political crisis. Interest rates of Belgium government bonds were steadily rising. King Albert therefore issued a statement asking the caretaking prime minister Yves Leterme and his government to take all necessary budgetary measures to keep up financial credibility. The government will meet on this Wednesday morning.
The new scenery that King Albert and his ever creative advisers have put up is a well-considered way to make no choice between the options of De Wever and di Rupo, and nevertheless to make both bear more responsibility, without throwing away all the work Vande Lanotte has patiently achieved.
The biggest problem that might arise is the unspoken ambitions to become prime minister of each of the three. Di Rupo still wants, but has taken a lot of damage in his credibility the last few weeks. De Wever seems eager again, although he has continuously denied this. And Vande Lanotte is probably also hoping, but without having too much illusions. He will need lots of luck, as soon as he has carried his revered mother to her final place of rest.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Staring into the abyss

Royal negotiator Johan Vande Lanotte will report to King Albert II at 4:30 pm today. It is very much likely that he will hand in his resignation. The proposals he put on the table of the seven parties that want to form a new Belgian government were considered too much for the French-speaking parties and too few for the two main Flemish parties.
Vande Lanotte expected an answer to his proposals at Wednesday evening at the latest. The surprise came shortly after 6 pm when it was the Flemish Christian democrats who, after a meeting of the party bureau, handed in a ‘yes’, but with so many ‘fundamental points of critic’ that it was obviously more a ‘no’ than a ‘yes’. The CD&V of Wouter Beke wanted a new copy before the seven parties could be brought together again.
Shortly afterwards the Flemish nationalists of NVA took a similar point of view. Apparently CD&V and NVA had been in close touch with each other about their response to Vande Lanottes proposals. And although some Flemish Christian democrats – including the former Prime Minister Mark Eyskens - this morning on the radio voiced some concerns about the hard stand of their party, it is reported that Wouter Beke was pushed to do so by both the present Prime Minister Yves Leterme and the chief minister of the Flemish region Kris Peeters.
Besides the French-speaking socialists and Christian democrats yesterday also responded with a ‘yes’ with a large ‘but …’. Obviously both parties wanted to put up amendments against some of Vande Lanottes proposals that, in their opinion, went too far. They reflected what most of the French newspapers in Belgium had already concluded in the morning: the proposals were ‘too Flemish’.
The conclusion, although painful, is too self-evident: what the crucial French-speaking parties consider as going ‘too far’, is seen as ‘far from enough’ by the main Flemish parties. This means that in the present circumstances, and given the enormous intellectual effort that Vande Lanotte made to find the right balance, a classic Belgian short-term and willingly complicated compromise to cool off the tensions is no more in the cards. One may discuss the reasons of this, but not deny that fact. On the other hand everyone, including probably the Flemish nationalists, is afraid of a scenario of separation, as it is seen as a drive into unchartered lands.
No credulous proposals for getting out of the crisis, after 207 days, were at hand this morning. It is now, once again, to the king to seek a way out towards a new beginning.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Small step, great step, but for whom?

After 74 days of consultations the royal negotiator Johan Vande Lanotte has finally put a 62-page-proposal for all issues of institutional reform on the table of the seven parties that still pretend to want to form a new government in Belgium. It is a well-balanced proposal for a classic package of small measures of institutional reform, very much comparable to the last one, in 2001.
Vande Lanotte sent his proposal to the seven party presidents on Monday evening. For more than ten weeks he had been consulting politicians and all kind of experts, progressing extremely slowly before writing finally, between Christmas and New Year, a text with proposals on all institutional issues. The last time a text was put on the table was on October the 17th, when the proposals on institutional reform of the then-mediator Bart De Wever were rejected by the French-speaking parties within two hours.
The new proposals concern the reform of the political system, the devolution of competences, the split-up of electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvorde, new money for the Brussels region and the Finance Law. For the latter, the most thorny issue, Vande Lanotte proposes to give the regions limited competences to raise (or cut, if they would) their own taxes on personal incomes, within rather tight margins to prevent fiscal competition, and with a strong solidarity mechanism to compensate for the revenues of the economically weaker regions. The most spectacular new idea is the devolution of the so-called ‘fiscal expenses’, which contain all the (far too) many measures for fiscal deduction.
In its core Vande Lanotte document is a classic proposal for institutional-reform-in progress, containing a well-balanced package of small measures of devolution and its corrections, and of Flemish and French-speaking sensitivities. It looks, in scope and ambition, very much like the last reform of 2001, which was negotiated by the then prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, in a government where Vande Lanotte was deputy-prime-minister.
This means that the proposal is not the big institutional Copernican Revolution as was demanded by the Flemish nationalists of NVA, and the Christian democratic chief minister of the Flemish government, Kris Peeters. On the other hand it is clear that this will no way be the last institutional reform as the French-speaking parties were expecting. It has the capacity to pacify tensions between Flemish and French-speaking parties for a couple of years and maybe even a decade. But it will certainly not make Belgian institutions more transparent and efficient, on the contrary.
In the first reactions the left-wing Flemish parties – greens and socialists – agreed that Vande Lanottes proposal is a good base to advance the negotiations. The French-speaking parties were hesitating, and preferred to wait what the NVA and the Flemish Christian-democrats will decide, later today. Most observators were betting on a ‘yes but …’ as the answer of most of the parties involved.
Belgian government negotiations have now been going on for 205 days since the elections of June the 13th. The negotiations about budget cuts for 22 billion euros towards 2015 still have to begin.