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.


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