Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Rest, in peace

Negotiations for a new Belgian government have been suspended until the middle of August. This decision was taken last week after what may start to begin to look maybe like a small breakthrough. But we shall have to wait until about day 428 after the elections to have confirmation that this little hope materializes.
Two weeks have passed since the Flemish nationalists rejected the proposals of ‘formateur’ Elio di Rupo for starting real negotiations about a new government. Shortly after the njet of the NVA di Rupo handed in his resignation, but king Albert refused to accept it. Immediately afterwards the formateur started to act again as if nothing had happened.
The crucial question now was to see if the Flemish Christian-democrats (CD&V), who had accepted di Rupo’s proposals with some amendments, but refused to sit around the table without the nationalists, could be lured into the negotiations again. After two weeks of extreme slow movements of progress on all sides the eight parties that try to get around the same table, accepted to do so on the National Day of July the 21st, including CD&V.
The base to start to talk is a proposal of di Rupo to give some way to CD&V, without chasing the francophone parties away. The demand of the president of CD&V, Wouter Beke, to accept the law-proposals he made a few months earlier as chief negotiator to split up the electoral district of Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde, was met. And the correcting proposals to appease the French-speaking parties that di Rupo had written in his proposal, were put into some commissions to be ‘studied’.
CD&V can now tell that they have obtained the split-up of BHV without compensation, and that no other negotiation will start until this agreement is fully worked out. But none of the French-speaking parties is ready to confirm this point of view openly, nor does Mr. di Rupo. And of course there is nothing said yet about the global institutional reform or the huge budget cuts that still have to be made.
One day after the breakthrough on National Day di Rupo announced that negotiations would be held by technicians in the next week and would then be suspended until the 15th of August. Apparently the exhaustion of his own staff after 400 days was a big element in this decision. Others said it was a sign that di Rupo did not want to take the risk of a failure in the weeks where it is almost impossible to bring parliament back to vote its own dissolution. Still others regretted the momentum towards a breakthrough may now be lost, especially since the Flemish nationalists seemed for the first time quite isolated after their brutal refusal.
Bart De Wever and the fellow-nationalists have in the meantime bitterly complained about what they describe as the U-turn of their former Christian democrat allies. The French-speaking media on the other hand attribute the beginning of a breakthrough largely to the tv-speech that King Albert II held on the 20th of July. It’s a tradition that he does so one day before National Day and it is as much a tradition that he gives a boring speech, full of general and good intentions.
But this the time the 77-year old King showed openly impatience with the politicians, called in Walter Bagehot to warn them that this could not go on like this, and repeatedly knocked his fist onto the table. He also pointed to the European crisis that was coming to a head with an extra summit in Brussels on Belgium’s National Day.
It was quite a strong communication performance, very unusual for the Belgian as well as any monarchy. But to see if it worked we will have to wait until the middle of August, when the King will also return from a well-deserved holiday.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A resounding njet

In less than ten minutes on Thursday afternoon Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, shot down almost all the proposals his counterpart Elio di Rupo made three days ago, in the first serious attempt to propose a government program. After 390 days Belgium is back to square one.
De Wever had called for a press conference in a meeting room of the Flemish Parliament at 2 pm. Up to Thursday-morning only the two liberal parties had answered ‘yes but’ to the proposals the ‘formateur’, Elio di Rupo, had made on Monday. As soon as the press conference of the Flemish nationalists (NVA) was announced the five remaining parties that have been invited to the government negotiations also announced a conditional approval for di Rupo’s text.
The Flemish Christian first announced a press conference, then canceled it because of the announcement of the NVA-press conference. Finally their president Wouter Beke came out of the party headquarters at 1 pm to say that his party was ready to negotiate but would not do so if the NVA would not participate.
The last element was exactly the message that De Wever delivered one hour later, in a quite strong-worded statement in which he criticised almost every element of di Rupo’s proposal. And he summarized: ‘With the best will of the world, I cannot believe that negotiations on this base will end up in success.’
The announcement sent shock waves through the political scenery in Belgium. Many accused De Wever of fleeing his responsibilities as largest party of the country. Some suggested that a coalition without NVA should be formed. But as the Flemish Christian democrats confirmed that they would not enter into a government without the nationalists, it was clear that such a government would have a very weak position in Flanders.
New elections are now the most logical outcome, although it is at the moment far from certain that there can be found a majority in the Lower House to vote for an early dissolution. Elio di Rupo meanwhile declined to react to the new situation. He will only come out with a statement Friday.

Monday, 4 July 2011

A man, a plan

Fourty eight days after he was appointed for the second time and 386 days after the last elections, Elio di Rupo, one of the winners last year, finally presented what looks like a reasonable and detailed proposal for a government program. The final round of the longest government negotiations ever in Belgium and the world seems now to have started.
Di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists and since May the 17th the ‘formateur’ of a new government, presented a note of 105 pages to King Albert this noon. At the same time he sent it to the presidents of eight other political parties (socialists, Christian democrats, liberals and greens on each side of the language border, and the Flemish nationalists).
The note was the result of seven weeks of talks about all pending issues for a new government: institutional reform, financial devolution, budget cuts, reform of the political and justice system, new migration policies. During the press conference he held for one hour and an half in the parliament from 5 pm onwards, it rapidly became clear that di Rupo had worked out a detailed proposal with surprisingly new and balanced ideas.
The unexpected new element was that for the first time he openly put some socialist taboos into question, among these the idea that unemployment benefits should not be decreasing in time. Automatic indexation of wages on the other hand was upheld, as was the age limit of 65 years to go into retirement.
In general the impression was that di Rupo had accepted the need for drastic changes – which up to now he did not seem to – but in a framework of upholding as much of the existing systems unchanged as possible, to make these survive. It is not a blistering new project for the country he proposed, but a realistic correction programm for the next three years. Given the rather good economic performances of Belgium the last one and a half year, it is a defendable choice, even if it will not be liked by those who hoped for a new beginning.
For the moment it is only the opening move in negotiations in which formally nine parties are invited to participate. Di Rupo gave them time until Thursday evening to come with a Yes or No. Most bets are on many ‘Yes, but’.