Sunday, 27 February 2011

Six months deadlock

Nothing substantial is to be announced about the still ongoing negotiations to form a new Belgian government. A new celebration might be upcoming these days: it is six months now since the last time that all parties of a potential coalition sat together around the same table.
It was at 3:30 in the morning of Sunday the 29th of August that Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists (PS) and at that time ‘preformateur’ in the Belgian government negotiations, had to accept failure to reach an agreement after ten hours of discussions with seven political parties around the same table. Since then no meeting was possible of all Flemish and French-speaking parties that would be willing to go together in the same federal government.
Next Tuesday the present negotiator, outgoing minister of Finance Didier Reynders, is to report at the Palace about his mission that started on February the 2th. He has been seeing many parties, and spoke a lot with the two antagonists, Bart De Wever of the Flemish nationalist NVA, and Elio di Rupo. But it is unclear if he has made any progress, and what coalition he might propose to start negotiations.
Rumours abide, about all kind of scenarios, and even about some slight improvement of the atmosphere in the talks. But the most likely scenario continues to be that negotiations will be prolonged until April, when the caretaking government will have to depose his budgetary homework to the European Council, as an obligation in the new so-called ‘European semester’. If this succeeds – still a big if - then new elections could become possible with a reduced risk of vulneraibility against the vagaries of the financial markets. But please, do not bet on it.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


 The Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever met with informateur Didier Reynders on Thursday afternoon, after the former had accused the latter of making proposals throught the media but without consulting him. No comments were made afterwards. Reynders mission has been prolonged with another fortnight by King Albert on Wednesday. Progress is not really in sight, and elections are becoming likely for late in spring. On Thursday Belgium seemed to have broken some kind of world record, as the BBC reported:

'Belgians are staging a series of tongue-in-cheek events to mark what many there see as a new record - the world's longest wait for a government.
Belgium has been without a government for 249 days - longer than Iraq - as parties from the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south remain split.
To mark the event, 249 people plan to strip naked in Ghent, and there will be free beer and chips in other cities.
Organisers hope the events will boost efforts to break the political impasse.
"We've had enough of political games," Kliment Kostadinov, one of the organisers, told the AFP.
"We must get a government fast and a reform of our institutions that is good for all Belgians."
Johan Vande Lanotte, who resigned recently from the post of king's mediator with the task of ending the crisis, urged Belgium's political leaders not to give up on finding a solution.
 He told Belgian radio that he had achieved agreement on up to 70% of his text but the final step had proved difficult.
"If the gap is so great, the parties should take great steps. That is not easy. Often they don't realise how hard that is. You don't make major reform of the state without enormous pain in your own ranks," Mr Lanotte said.
In a speech later in Ghent, he set out proposals for a Belgian union made up of four separate parts - Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, the capital Brussels and German-speaking areas.
A caretaker government has been running Belgium since last June's elections which failed to produce an outright winner.
Although it took 249 days before Iraq achieved an outline agreement on a government, approval was not forthcoming for another 40 days, and some have questioned whether Belgium has yet broken the dubious record.
But that did not stop dozens of student organisations marking the event under an umbrella group entitled "Not in our name".
Although many of the events, such as stripping and eating chips, appeared light-hearted, organisers insisted they had a serious political message of conserving social security and strengthening solidarity'

Monday, 14 February 2011

A small rebuke

The Parti Socialiste, the main party in French-speaking Belgium, on Monday imposed some limits on the proposals of informateur Didier Reynders. Its main demand was that the Flemish socialists should continue to participate in the negotiations.

Elio di Rupo, the president of the PS, insisted on Monday after a meeting of his party bureau that he will only negotiate about institutional reform and a new government ‘in the presence of the Flemish socialists’. By saying this he was rebuking Didier Reynders, the outgoing president of the French-speaking liberals and an old-time rival of di Rupo. Reynders had last Saturday proposed a coalition of six parties in which the Flemish socialists were not included, but had left open the possibility that other parties could join.
In its statement the Parti Socialiste on Monday also signalled that the mission of Didier Reynders had been limited in scope: he had only to clear the field somewhat on institutional reform, nothing else. Reynders two days ago not only proposed a coalition-formula, but also tried to open up the discussion on socio-economic matters.
The informateur did not react immediately. There were rumours Monday evening that he would consult the mayor players, di Rupo and Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, Tuesday before going to report to the King on Wednesday.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Reshuffling the cards

After ten days in charge the outgoing Finance minister Didier Reynders is exploring new coalition formula’s in the endless negotiations for a Belgian government. The big news is that up to now the idea has not been rejected by anybody.
Reynders came out of his ministry on Saturday noon (picture: belga) to make a statement to the press shortly after he had met the last of the party delegations. The outgoing Finance minister and French-speaking liberal was appointed ‘informateur’ by King Albert on the 2nd of October.
‘There is a general will to negotiate’ he said, ‘and many consider the possibility of taking the parties of the outgoing coalition. As I see that all the Flemish parties want the nationalist NVA also to participate, we should add them to the coalition. But I don’t want to show any preference for or against any other possible coalition partners.’
The caretaker government of Yves Leterme, that came into power at the end of 2007, is a coalition of both liberal and Christian democratic parties, and of the Parti Socialiste. The Flemish nationalists were part of this government until 21 September 2008, when the prime minister and his party decided that the stalled institutional negotiations had less relevance than the bank crisis that had broken out after the collapse of Lehman Brothers six days earlier.
The outgoing coalition still commands 83 seats in the Lower House, eight more than the simple majority of 75. With the 27 seats of NVA it would have 110 seats, much more than the two third majority needed to change the constitution. But in his statement Reynders left open the possibility that other parties could participate.
For the last eight months the government negotiations were held between the seven parties that are also present in the regional governments that came into power in 2009. The liberals are not a part of these. By bringing them in, Reynders is opting for a different majority on the federal level, which could complicate the tasks of institutional reform and drastic budget cuts.
The informateur indicated that he was ready to give way as leader of the negotiations to Elio di Rupo, the president of the French-speaking socialists, ‘who has the support of all French-speaking parties’. And he said that he would start discussions about economic matters as the employment policy and the budget cuts ‘as these are very much linked to the problems of institutional reform’.
The latter is not strictly spoken a part of the mission that he received from King Albert ten days ago. It is also a departure from the fact that negotiations were up to now only concentrated on institutional matters. Wednesday Reynders will go to the palace to report about what he obtained. It’s likely that his mission will be extended

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Background: the shape of things to come

There has been a lot of speculation in the Belgian press about the chances of the new informateur Didier Reynders to force a breakthrough in negotiations for a new Belgian government. By sending out the outgoing leader of the French-speaking liberals, King Albert II for the first time in seven months is trying another scenario for a new coalition, although it is as yet not clear which one. The Flemish nationalists seem to react positively, while the French-speaking socialist – Reynders' main political rivals – show a cold shoulder.
Didier Reynders and his party, the liberal MR, were officially kept out of the negotiations up to now because they lost the last elections. The deeper reason probably was that Elio di Rupo, the leader of the socialists and the big winner of last elections in French-speaking Belgium, wanted to keep up a left-wing coalition in his part of the country – with the Christian democrats and the greens – to face off the Flemish nationalists, the big winner of the elections in Flanders, and a party with a centre-right electoral program.
Now that di Rupo’s plan has failed and he is in command, Reynders will probably try to lure the Flemish nationalists into cooperation, thus showing that he can do what di Rupo failed to do: to make an agreement. With such a preliminary accord he may then try to break the left-wing alliance in French-speaking Belgium. No easy task of course, but even he fails he can still lay the blame at the door of his French-speaking rivals, just before the new elections that will almost inevitably follow the failure of his mission.
For the first part of his strategy he will no doubt offer a larger devolution of competences to the regions than di Rupo to Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist NVA. He might even offer a large fiscal autonomy for the regions, on condition that the financing of the social security remains a federal matter (and thus with solidarity between stronger and weaker regions maintained at the highest formal level), at least in appearance.
The hardest nut to crack is the old and thorny issue of BHV, the bilingual largest electoral district of the country, around Brussels.  The Flemish nationalists want to split it, in the illusory belief that this will stop the villages around the capital attracting French-speaking families who flee the city center once they have kids. French-speaking residents in the villages, who tend to vote for the francophone big-wigs of the capital in each elections, fear this as a first step towards delivering them to the arbitrary rule of the Flemish government and parliament, who officially still want the area to become monolinguistic Flemish again.see: The core of the stalemate, on this blog in september 2007).
Instead of trying to calm down the old-fashioned fears on both side of the language divide by being generous in a modern 21st century way, both Flemish and Walloon politicians – far more than only the nationalists – have poured oil on the fire. And the biggest pyromaniac has been Olivier Maingain, the most popular politician in the electoral district, leader of the Brussels French-speaking nationalist FDF, and as such a key figure in the MR of … Didier Reynders. The latter now has to bring him around the table with Bart De Wever. He will probably try to do so starting from the proposals for compromise on BHV that have been put on the table up to now.
If he would succeed to make an agreement with the Flemish nationalists on this – already a major ‘if’ – some other traps lie ahead. The Flemish Christian democrats of CD&V for instance have been following the nationalist line up to now, as they had lost the elections. But in order to placate their own strong union wing, they wanted the socialists to participate in the talks. They might now cause some trouble, certainly because the Flemish liberals will also be invited, who will support rather strong measures to make the budget cuts Europe wants Belgium to make.
So Reynders has to form a stable Flemish alliance before returning to the French-speaking parties who were so kind to keep him aside for the last seven months. With an agreement with the Flemish he can put pressure on these parties, as they will want to avoid the blame of being responsible for the final failure. On the other hand they – and certainly Elio di Rupo - will move heaven and earth to demonstrate that Reynders is selling all the interests of the French-speaking part of the country to the Flemish.
Most of all Reynders has, to succeed, either to break the alliance of left-wing parties in French-speaking Belgium, or the oath of all Flemish parties that neither of them would enter a new government without the Flemish nationalists. In the latter case, would they do so, a coalition of the three traditional parties (socialists, liberals, christiandemocrats) without the NVA would be possible. But, as this possibility is loudly advocated by French-speaking parties, none of the Flemish parties is daring to step into such a scenario, yet.
This is the core of the Belgian stalemate, of course. Either side wants the other to blink first. Which will not happen and which makes it most likely that the new informateur will in the first place try to make as much collateral damage to his rivals in French-speaking Belgium as possible, before heading for the polls. Although … for Reynders this is also his last chance to remain at the top of Belgian politics, as his party has been taken over by the young Charles Michel.
New elections – maybe to be held after the caretaking Belgian government has done his housework (or at least some patchwork) for the new European budgetary watchdogs somewhere in April – could turn around the question if the electors want to confirm their support for the two leaders that in eight months were incapable of forming a new government. In other words: do the voters want to go on for another year at least without a proper government?The polls still indicate they want. It seems that only the financial markets will be able to impose the cuts and reforms on Belgium it definitely needs to prepare its future.  

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Last Waltz?

King Albert appointed a new ‘informateur’ on Wednesday afternoon: Didier Reynders, the outgoing leader of the Frenchs-speaking liberals, and the minister of Finance for the last twelve years. He has two weeks to see if he can organise a new start in the deadlocked negotiations for a new Belgian government.
After six days of consultations king Albert finally decided to sent out a French-speaking liberal. It is the first time the liberals will be involved in the government negotiations since the elections of June the 13th last year. Didier Reynders has to report back in two week times, and has only to consider the institutional questions up to then, according to a statement of the palace. The latter is a rather remarkable restriction.
Reynders is 52 years old and has been minister of Finance for the last twelve years. He also was president of the French-speaking liberals of the MR for the last seven years, but was recently pushed aside. His successor, Charles Michel, the son of the former Euro-commissioner Louis Michel, will take up the presidency of the party in two weeks time. His mission as informateur could therefore well become his swan song in Belgian politics.
Reynders was already informateur in June 2007, after the elections in which he was one of the big winners. He also was a key figure in the successful  Belgian presidency of the EU in the second half of last year.
‘I shall verify if there is still a will to form a government’, Reynders said during a press conference after he returned from the palace. ‘But I know it will be difficult’. Tomorrow he will start his consultations with a visit of his failed predecessor, Johan Vande Lanotte.
It is widely expected that the outgoing MR-leader will make some far reaching proposals to the Flemish parties about institutional reform, thereby obliging the French-speaking socialists of Elio di Rupo to accept or reject these. If it ends in a rejection, new elections are almost inevitable.
King Albert also met with outgoing prime minister Yves Leterme earlier on Wednesday. In a statement afterwards the palace stated that the outgoing government will have to prepare the budgets of 2011 and 2012 to fulfil the obligations that will come with the so-called European semester, the procedure wherein the European Commission and the European Council will impose strict conditions for budgetary policies on the member states. These conditions will be laid down from the end of March onwards. Belgium still has to make up a plan to find 22 billion euros in budgetary cuts (13 % of all government expenditures) towards 2015.