Sunday, 27 March 2011

Caretaking at war

No progress has been signalled since Wouter Beke, the president of the Flemish Christian democrats, was put in the driver’s seat at the beginning of March to form a new Belgian government. In the meantime an acrimonious debate grew about the question how much care a caretaking government can take.
Wouter Beke has been seeing quite regularly the main antagonists, Elio di Rupo and Bart De Wever, since he was appointed on the 2nd of March. Sometimes he spoke with them apart, sometimes with both together. A few times he met other party presidents. The elements that have come out of these talks suggest that almost no progress has been made. Belgian politicians are still seeking for a first compromise in the government negotiations that have been going on for 287 days since the elections of June the 13th.
The last weeks a new polemic drew more attention than the negotiations itself. It was started when three weeks ago one of the leaders of the Flemish nationalist NVA, Jan Jambon, said that it was impossible that the caretaking government of Yves Leterme would handle the question of the pluri-annual budget that has to be introduced to the European Commission at the end of April, following the introduction last year of the so-called ‘European semester’ for stronger budgetary control. In one breath Jambon added that this meant that government-negotiations had to bring in results towards the end of April or should be given up by then.   
Jambons statement was inspired by the fact that the caretaking government, with liberals, Christian democrats and the Parti Socialiste, had just introduced the budget for 2011 in parliament. In Belgian political tradition this is normally not done by a caretaking government, but as the negotiations for a new government have lasted longer than ever before,  prime minister Leterme (picture) decided to go ahead and to find parliamentary support for it.
With his coalition Leterme still commands a simple majority in parliament, but NVA, the big winner of the election, is not part of it. This means that the Flemish nationalists are sometimes playing opposition to this government, sometimes consulted by the caretaking government, and at the same time crucial for the formation of the new government that should succeed this one.
The words of Jambon caused a lot of angry reactions, but were confirmed by his president Bart De Wever at the beginning of last week. Seemingly irritated De Wever said that the situation cannot last forever whereby a so-called caretaking government is doing more and more what a normal government would do, ‘including declaring war’. With the latter he meant the decision to send 6  F-16’s and a mine hunter to the international coalition that is trying to impose a no-flyzone on Libya.
De Wevers comments provoked an angry an unprecedented reaction of the prime minister and all seven Flemish Christian democratic ministers in the caretaking government. With quotes of De Wever listed up, they accused the leader of the Flemish nationalist of erratic behaviour. Leterme himself added that ‘while we take our responsibility to keep the country running, all attempts of De Wever have ended in failure’.
The polemic provoked comments and discussions on all sides on the issue of how far a caretaking government can be more than caretaking. The main political result is that the Flemish Christian democrats and the Flemish nationalist have been torn apart, whereas up to now they seemed to work closely together in trying to achieve a radical institutional reform.
In more general terms, the confusion is almost total. With the deadline of Jambon and De Wever in mind, speculation is growing that at some point the nationalists will be dumped or quit themselves, whereafter the caretaking government might be transformed into a genuine coalition of the three traditional parties in the north and the south of Belgium. An important element in this is no doubt that the outgoing prime minister Yves Leterme, who seemed at the end of his career last June, is regaining some popularity with the media and the electorate.
On the other hand the De Wever and the NVA indicate that they will put maximal pressure on the other Flemish parties not to start a coalition without having obtained an institutional reform of the French-speaking parties. Indirectly this means they are trying to pressure the Flemish liberals and Christian democrats towards giving up even the caretaking government.
The latter probably will not do this, and meanwhile stress that when they would form a government without the nationalists, the institutional reform should be at least as radical as when De Wever were into the coaltion. Which brings the whole negotiations again at point zero.
New elections before the end of June remain therefore the most likely outcome, although all politicians are saying that they do not want these. But there is so much difference between acts and words these days in Belgium that these statements, like many others, are unlikely to be sincere.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

A big hug from Downing Street

Few open reactions have been noticed in Belgium or Britain on the visit of Bart De Wever at Downing Street n°10. The Flemish nationalist leader was received by prime minister David Cameron with a delegation of his party for forty minutes on Thursday evening.
The news was broken by two Belgian newspapers and the radio on Friday morning. The British press, nor the press service of the prime minister have mentioned anything about it up to now.
De Wever and three key persons of his party, the Flemish nationalist NVA, had been received on Thursday evening by David Cameron. The prime minister spoke with De Wever in the Cabinet Room of Downing Street, before introducing him and his three colleagues to a reception of Tory representatives. Before the visit to the prime minister the NVA-delegation had received a personal tour of the House of Commons by the Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, and had tea with him in the House of Lords.
Both Cameron and Heaton-Harris said that they see the NVA as a potential ally on the European scene. They signalled that the British Tories and the Flemish nationalist party share the same visions on a lot of political issues.
Since they have left the European Peoples Party in the European Parliament, the British Conservatives have a group on their own with a few allies in Poland, the Czech Republic and Belgium. The problem with the EPP, according to Heaton-Harris, is ‘the dominance of the Germans’.
The NVA, has now only one MEP, but could have at least three in 2014 if it keeps up its electoral score of 2010. It belongs now to the European Free Alliance that is in a combined group with the Greens. It seems that Derk-Jan Eppink, a Belgian MEP of Dutch origin who belongs to the same group as the British Conservatives, made the first contacts for the meeting between Cameron and De Wever.
Bart De Wever afterwards declared that he had said to Cameron that he was jealous on the British ‘as they are capable of forming a coalition government in nine days’. Towards the Belgian public opinion he said that ‘those who had their doubts on the NVA as a valuable and reasonable partner should now put their assumptions into revision’
The news inevitably created some bitter reactions, especially in francophone Belgium. ‘It seems the British Tories have completely swept the fact under the carpet that the NVA is an outspoken separatist party that in the past has also supported the Scottish nationalists’, wrote the Libre Belgique. It also remarked that the present prime minister of Belgium, Yves Leterme, has not been received in Downing Street yet.
Some question now if Britain, that played a decisive role in the creation of Belgium in 1830, has not given a small support in unrolling the red carpet towards an independent Flanders?Or should we just forget about geostrategic thoughts, and  only conclude that the Tories always have been and still are the British nationalist party par excellence?  

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

At last a Christian democrat

King Albert II of Belgium on Wednesday afternoon appointed Wouter Beke, the 36-year old president of the Flemish Christian democratic party, as the new royal negotiator. He will try to negotiate a way out of the impasse of the Belgian government negotiations that failed to produce a new government for  263 days.
Beke succeeds to Didier Reynders who for a month led the negotiations but did not achieve any progress. He handed in his resignation on Tuesday. It was hoped that Reynders would show that he was capable of making a compromise on Brussels, as his party has an important wing of Brussels nationalists. But he did not. Besides, as an old-time rival of Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists, he did not receive much room for manoeuvring.
Di Rupo has been insisting for some weeks that it was up to the Flemish Christian democrats to make a breakthrough, as they are the old power-brokers of Belgian politics and since last elections have been close allies of the Flemish nationalist. Di Rupo did not want the Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever to take up the command. After a full day of much confusion Tuesday De Wever accepted Wouter Beke as a compromise figure.
In a first short statement after his nomination the new negotiator indicated that he would discuss with nine parties (the seven ones who have been negotiating since July last year, plus the two liberal parties). This is the scenario di Rupo prefers. De Wever insists that first a choice should be made to obtain no more parties than are needed to create a two third majority.
As there is not even an agreement on what coalition to form, it is clear the odds are against the young Wouter Beke. ‘Do not expect miracles’, Kris Peeters, the chief-minister of the Flemish region and according to many the real strongman of the Christian democrats, commented Wednesday, shortly after the King’s decision.