Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Something moving ...

 King Albert the Second announced Monday evening at 8:30 pm that he appointed Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialist party in Belgium, to be the 'formateur' of a new Belgian government.
As di Rupo is a key figure in the negotiations and the nomination of a 'formateur' is normally the last stage in the formation of a government, this might be a decisive step out of the deadlock that has been lasting for 337 days since the elections of June the 10th last year.

After di Rupo (59) and his Flemish nationalist counterpart Bart De Wever (40) stared each other for months into the eyes, matters came to a culmination last week. De Wever demanded that the king should appoint a 'formateur', which could be Mr. di Rupo, or should otherwise be himself.

He also demanded that an immediate choice should be made which six or seven parties should sit around the table, with a centre-right alliance in Flanders and a centre-left in French-speaking Belgium. That demand was rejected by di Rupo who preferred to start with no less than 9 parties in a grand 'national coalition' and with a less clear-cut title than 'formateur'.

The palace seems now in a slight authoritarian way to have put Mr. Di Rupo before the block: there would be a formateur, and either he would do it, or it would be De Wever. If it was di Rupo he would be able to keep up the scenario of 9 parties. There were some rumblings among the Flemish nationalists after di Rupo's appointment about the absence of clear coalition-choices, but these rumblings meanwhile have become a habit.

The fast move of the king obliges Mr. di Rupo to succeed. Failing twice - the first time was on the 3rd of September last year - will definitely kill his ambitions to become the next prime minister. He made a quite decisive impression when he explained his plans on a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Mr. De Wever seems now in the comfortable position that he can wait and judge what Mr. di Rupo will have on offer. But his risk is that the new formateur offers proposals on decentralisation that can lure the traditional Flemish parties out of their up to now more or less unbreakable bond with the far greater nationalist party.

New is also that henceforth social and economic issues will be discussed in the negotiations, that up to now were completely neglected in talks that centred only on institutional reform. This means that after eleven months, the Belgian political parties are finally going to speak about the budget cuts 'for an amount of 17 to 20 billion Euros towards 2015' as Mr. di Rupo put it, and about reforms of the pension system, the migration policy, the justice system and the labour market, to name but these.

It is obvious that there is still a long way to go. But for the first time since many months some movement is detected again. Belgians live on hope.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Opening the floodgates to separatism

After 71 days Wouter Beke, the president of the Flemish Christian democrats, today handed in his resignation as the chief negotiator in the attempts to form a new Belgian government. And as was feared, the two main antagonists, Elio di Rupo and Bart De Wever, did not come up with a clear and common proposal what should come next.

Beke (picture) went around noon to King Albert. He handed in his resignation, but the King did not yet accept it, pending a new round of consultations with party leaders. The president of the Flemish Christian democrats, who was appointed on March the 2th, gave a short press statement at 4 pm. He declared that he had prepared an extensive report that should make an agreement on institutional reform possible before the summer-holiday.
Many analyst though said that Beke painted a somewhat rosy picture, to hide the more prosaic fact that he simply was fed-up with the eternal hesitations of the two main party leaders, the Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever and the French-speaking socialist Elio di Rupo. Even before Bekes statement a letter from di Rupo had been leaked to the press. In it di Rupo opposed the latest proposals of the royal negotiator about changes to the Finance Law.
Beke had invested a lot of his efforts during his twelve weeks at the helm in bringing together di Rupo and De Wever. But in the end, as became clear today, both are extremely at odds about what comes next.
De Wever and his party repeatedly stated the last ten days that they accept that the King would appoint di Rupo as the ‘formateur’ to start the ultimate phase to form a government. And that if di Rupo was not ready to go, De Wever should have a try. The Flemish nationalists also insisted that the choice of the coalition should be made immediately.
Di Rupo insisted that no less than nine parties should be invited to the negotiations. The definite choice of coalition partners should then develop and be made during the discussions. He seems also to have hesitated to become a genuine ‘formateur’, as the chances of success are still rather remote. On the other hand he and his party have reduced their resistance against the possibility of a new appointment of De Wever.
The palace will no doubt need a few days to sort out all of this. Meanwhile the opportunity to hold new elections before summer is almost lost, as the technical deadline is approaching fast (17 May in principle, in an extreme scenario maybe 19 or 20 May). The remarkable and more and more obvious conclusion is that both parts of Belgium thought last year in June that they had elected a new strong leader and that they now are confronted with two party presidents who hesitate, if not genuinely refuse, to grab the power in their hands and become the next prime minister.
For di Rupo the motive is probably that he wants to wear out Flemish appetite for decentralisation, as he did with Yves Leterme, the Christian democrat prime minister who won the elections in 2007 with strong demands for institutional reform. Nevertheless the last few weeks it has become obvious that his hope to bring the three traditional Flemish political parties (Christian democrats, liberals and socialists) in a new government without the nationalists of NVA, can only be achieved through offering these parties an even bigger decentralisation than one with the nationalists on board.
De Wever for his part refuses to take the lead, not overtly, but through tactics of putting each time new aims on table and of accusing other politicians and the palace that they do not want to give him a fair chance. In a party where at least half of the members (and the electorate) despise Belgium and want to see it disappear, a role of saving the country for him would be tantamount to asking Mr. Salmond to save the United Kingdom.
There is still a large majority in the country – and probably even in Flanders – that considers the breaking-up of Belgium as too uncertain a process to risk it, certainly now that the Belgian economy is running rather well, in the slipstream of the German boom. But by tilting the crisis over the summer Elio di Rupo, is playing an extreme bluffpoker for someone who is the nominal leader of the two regions that would face immeasurable budget cuts if the Belgian federation came to extinct.
Patience in Flanders with what are now obviousy the same old catenaccio-tactics of the French-speaking leaders might start to wear thin in the long period till September, certainly in the present nationalist mood all over Western Europe. Most Flemish will then tend to forget that Bart De Wever was also not exactly the leader that took matters decisively into his hand. Mentally they might shift to a readiness to open the floodgates to separatism. Rien ne va plus, for the better or the worse, if only to get rid of the never-ending immobility.


Sunday, 8 May 2011

In the summertime ..

After 329 days without a new government in Belgium, the next ten days will be the last wherein it is still possible to start the procedure to hold new elections before the summer-holidays. The talk therefore is more and more that the caretaking government will continue till October 2012, when national elections could be held together with local ones. Meanwhile the threat of the Flemish nationalist to break-up negotiations at the end of April if no compromise was reached did not materialize.

Wouter Beke, the 36-years old party president of the Flemish Christian Democrats, is still leading the negotiations for a new Belgian government, 67 days after he was appointed by King Albert. He continues to negotiate principally with the two main antagonists, Bart De Wever (40), the leader of the Flemish nationalist NVA, and Elio di Rupo (59), the leader of the French-speaking socialists of the PS. Both were the obvious winners of the parliamentary elections of June the 10th last year.

It is expected that Beke will end his mission somewhere this week or early next week. Some sources say he made a little bit progress, other ones he made almost none at all. The crucial element is that in order to hold elections on the last possible Sunday before the summer holiday – on the 26th of June – parliament should be dissolved on the 17th of May. The next possibility to dissolve parliament is at the end of July.
Therefore the word ‘summernate’ (instead of hibernate) has come into vogue among political observers: the negotiations will drag along the whole summer at least, and the caretaker government of Yves Leterme will continue to run the country. After the summer the fever of the local elections of October 2012 will start to rise, and so no government will be formed and new elections can be postponed till then. Both the NVA and the PS may bet on their popularity on the national level to boost their positions in the local councils in the elections of October next year.
The caretaker government can do a lot, while it still commands a simple parliamentary majority, and takes up the day-to-day administration. But it cannot internally agree on fundamental reforms like budget cuts, pension- and labour market reform, the overhaul of the justice system or a new migration policy.
The ultimate test could be the proposals for budget reform that Belgium is supposed to send to the European Council of June like every other member state of the Union, as a consequence of the new rules on  budgetary and economic governance. But the first exercise this year seems not to need an elaborated and detailed plan. So it is possible that the caretaker government might still rather easily find an agreement on this.
The Flemish nationalist NVA, who were in the opposition at the end of the previous legislature, are not involved in that process. At the end of March they had threatened to stop all negotiations if the caretaker government would continue to proceed with the budget plan. Meanwhile that threat has been abandoned by Bart De Wever, for unclear reasons.
Last Sunday the nationalist leader suddenly proposed that after Wouter Beke would have ended his mission in the next ten days, Elio di Rupo should be named formateur by the king, with a mission to go for a new government. If di Rupo would not accept this, he himself should become formateur, De Wever said.
Last week a row came up about the role of the King in the negotiations of the last eleven months, after a new book disclosed that he may have threatened the politicians with a refusal to accept new elections. The Flemish nationalist, mostly republicans, immediately accused the King of being biased against Flanders, and to obstruct every attempt of De Wever to take up the command. This point of view was however rejected by most other Flemish parties, who quoted earlier comments by De Wever that he was not interested in becoming prime minister.
In the meantime, seven days after De Wevers  latest proposal, Elio di Rupo still has not answered to the idea that he should take over from Wouter Beke and go for  the formation of a new government wherein he would be the new prime minister. Nor has De Wever repeated that he is ready to take over if di Rupo gets cold feet. Beke seems to do as if all these discussions do not concern him. At the moment neither he, nor the rest of the country know when his mission might end.

It will be, no doubt, another strange week in the endless negotiations for a new Belgian government ….