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.

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