At 1 a.m. on Saturday morning the negotiators for a new government in Belgium finally agreed on the last issue in a large package deal on the institutional reform of the country. It took Belgium 480 days of negotiations to reach that stage, in some way even more than 4 years. This should clear the way for a new government, that might take its powers before the end of the month.
It was in a rather sober setting that the negotiators came out of the federal Parliament Friday night after they had cut their last deal on institutional reform. This was exactly 22 days after they had reached a first breakthrough, on September the 15th. The institutional reform that the next government will have to work out consists of:
1)The devolution of new competences to the regions: among these the competences to pay children benefits (although the amounts per child must remain the same), and some competences concerning health care and policies for the labour market
2) A new Finance Law, that will enforce the economic base for revenues for the (socio-economic) regions, but will weaken this as far as the revenues of the communities (education, culture, health care) are concerned. In general the mechanisms of distributing money from the federal to the regional entities should become more transparent. Fiscal autonomy is slightly enforced
3) Political reform. The Senate will be reduced in power and number of mandates, elections will take place every five year (instead of 4 now) and be held as much as possible for all administration levels together, and new ministers will have to pass screening by parliament before starting their new job.
4) Slightly more coordination in the Brussels region. Mobility and security will be slightly more organised by the Brussels region, to the detriment of the communes. Brussels will get an extra subsidy of about 450 million €.
5) Brussels-Halle-Vilvorde. This largest electoral and justice district of Belgium, the only real bilingual one, will now be split up, but with some protection guarantees for the French-speaking citizens outside the capital (inside the Flemish region), especially in the six communes with a large French-speaking population
The text of the whole agreement will be read and finalised Monday by the presidents of the eight political parties (Christian democrats, socialists, greens and liberals), and made public Tuesday by formateur Elio di Rupo. As far as the Finance Law is concerned, the proposals did not take into account (yet) the deep budget cuts that the parties will have to agree upon before forming the new government in the next weeks.
So Belgium, that seemed to succumb in the worst economic crisis in 80 years, has finally – and at least for the moment - shown more resilience than many still dared to expect after the elections last year. But for all the time it took, the institutional agreement is certainly no breakthrough towards a redrawing of the complex institutional landscape of Belgium. This hope, that existed in June 2010 with (only) two undisputed winners of the elections , and after the previous government had failed on institutional reform for three years, did in the end not materialize.
What is now agreed is simply the sixth stage of the institutional reform-process of Belgium that was embarked on in 1970 and that, at each stage, saw gruesome compromises worked out to bridge the growing gap between Flemish and French-speaking parties (and the electorate beyond) in the country. The administration in Belgium will in no way become simpler or more transparent. The biggest achievement is probably the agreement on the 40-year old question of BHV, which might now finally be reduced to what it in fact always was: a matter of local politics.