Sunday, 6 February 2011

Background: the shape of things to come

There has been a lot of speculation in the Belgian press about the chances of the new informateur Didier Reynders to force a breakthrough in negotiations for a new Belgian government. By sending out the outgoing leader of the French-speaking liberals, King Albert II for the first time in seven months is trying another scenario for a new coalition, although it is as yet not clear which one. The Flemish nationalists seem to react positively, while the French-speaking socialist – Reynders' main political rivals – show a cold shoulder.
Didier Reynders and his party, the liberal MR, were officially kept out of the negotiations up to now because they lost the last elections. The deeper reason probably was that Elio di Rupo, the leader of the socialists and the big winner of last elections in French-speaking Belgium, wanted to keep up a left-wing coalition in his part of the country – with the Christian democrats and the greens – to face off the Flemish nationalists, the big winner of the elections in Flanders, and a party with a centre-right electoral program.
Now that di Rupo’s plan has failed and he is in command, Reynders will probably try to lure the Flemish nationalists into cooperation, thus showing that he can do what di Rupo failed to do: to make an agreement. With such a preliminary accord he may then try to break the left-wing alliance in French-speaking Belgium. No easy task of course, but even he fails he can still lay the blame at the door of his French-speaking rivals, just before the new elections that will almost inevitably follow the failure of his mission.
For the first part of his strategy he will no doubt offer a larger devolution of competences to the regions than di Rupo to Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist NVA. He might even offer a large fiscal autonomy for the regions, on condition that the financing of the social security remains a federal matter (and thus with solidarity between stronger and weaker regions maintained at the highest formal level), at least in appearance.
The hardest nut to crack is the old and thorny issue of BHV, the bilingual largest electoral district of the country, around Brussels.  The Flemish nationalists want to split it, in the illusory belief that this will stop the villages around the capital attracting French-speaking families who flee the city center once they have kids. French-speaking residents in the villages, who tend to vote for the francophone big-wigs of the capital in each elections, fear this as a first step towards delivering them to the arbitrary rule of the Flemish government and parliament, who officially still want the area to become monolinguistic Flemish again.see: The core of the stalemate, on this blog in september 2007).
Instead of trying to calm down the old-fashioned fears on both side of the language divide by being generous in a modern 21st century way, both Flemish and Walloon politicians – far more than only the nationalists – have poured oil on the fire. And the biggest pyromaniac has been Olivier Maingain, the most popular politician in the electoral district, leader of the Brussels French-speaking nationalist FDF, and as such a key figure in the MR of … Didier Reynders. The latter now has to bring him around the table with Bart De Wever. He will probably try to do so starting from the proposals for compromise on BHV that have been put on the table up to now.
If he would succeed to make an agreement with the Flemish nationalists on this – already a major ‘if’ – some other traps lie ahead. The Flemish Christian democrats of CD&V for instance have been following the nationalist line up to now, as they had lost the elections. But in order to placate their own strong union wing, they wanted the socialists to participate in the talks. They might now cause some trouble, certainly because the Flemish liberals will also be invited, who will support rather strong measures to make the budget cuts Europe wants Belgium to make.
So Reynders has to form a stable Flemish alliance before returning to the French-speaking parties who were so kind to keep him aside for the last seven months. With an agreement with the Flemish he can put pressure on these parties, as they will want to avoid the blame of being responsible for the final failure. On the other hand they – and certainly Elio di Rupo - will move heaven and earth to demonstrate that Reynders is selling all the interests of the French-speaking part of the country to the Flemish.
Most of all Reynders has, to succeed, either to break the alliance of left-wing parties in French-speaking Belgium, or the oath of all Flemish parties that neither of them would enter a new government without the Flemish nationalists. In the latter case, would they do so, a coalition of the three traditional parties (socialists, liberals, christiandemocrats) without the NVA would be possible. But, as this possibility is loudly advocated by French-speaking parties, none of the Flemish parties is daring to step into such a scenario, yet.
This is the core of the Belgian stalemate, of course. Either side wants the other to blink first. Which will not happen and which makes it most likely that the new informateur will in the first place try to make as much collateral damage to his rivals in French-speaking Belgium as possible, before heading for the polls. Although … for Reynders this is also his last chance to remain at the top of Belgian politics, as his party has been taken over by the young Charles Michel.
New elections – maybe to be held after the caretaking Belgian government has done his housework (or at least some patchwork) for the new European budgetary watchdogs somewhere in April – could turn around the question if the electors want to confirm their support for the two leaders that in eight months were incapable of forming a new government. In other words: do the voters want to go on for another year at least without a proper government?The polls still indicate they want. It seems that only the financial markets will be able to impose the cuts and reforms on Belgium it definitely needs to prepare its future.  

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