Monday, 13 June 2011

One year after

Patience is wearing thin, the European Commission (picture: José-Manuel Barroso) said

One year after the general elections of the 13th of June 2010, Belgium still has no new government. The good news is that after eleven months talks have started about tackling the huge budget cuts that have to be made. The European Commission fired a forceful warning shot on that issue last week. The bad news is that this makes a compromise again harder to find.
Elio di Rupo, the president of the French-speaking Parti Socialiste, will begin his fifth week of consultations as a ‘formateur’ tomorrow.  Until Thursday the 16th at least he receives party presidents and experts to have a chat on the social and economic issues facing the new government. Between the 2nd and the 9th of June di Rupo had no invitees, due to an operation on his vocal cords. His doctors did not allow him to speak.
No progress has been signalled since di Rupo was appointed, nor has any sense of urgency been detected. Opinion polls on Saturday indicated that the two big parties that won the elections last year, the PS in French-speaking Belgium, and the Flemish nationalists of Bart De Wever in Flanders, have kept or even enforced their lead over the other parties.
De Wever, who was interviewed by all Flemish media during the long weekend, said that after the summer the crisis should be solved: either by having a new government, by calling new elections or by prolonging and extending the mandate of the caretaking government of outgoing prime minister Yves Leterme, without the Flemish nationalists. Leterme casted doubts on that last scenario in an interview with a Dutch newspaper on Monday, by saying that his caretaking government is showing some signs of ‘metal fatigue’.
Last Wednesday the European Commission advised Belgium among other things to make budget cuts, to raise the pension age, to put a time limit on unemployment benefits and to make an end to the system of automatic wage indexation. That advice, a part of the new system of the so-called ‘European Semester’ for budget vigilance, was applauded by De Wever, but rejected by Di Rupo and his party as being to ‘rightish’.
It is now obvious that both political leaders of Belgium who received a mandate from their voters like nobody before them in the last thirty years, have both reasons not to become the next prime minister or to seek a compromise. Di Rupo and his party think they have only to lose in a government that will be marked by institutional devolution and budget cuts. De Wever and his party are not bothered by the risk of the break-up of the country, should no compromise be possible, and thus are not prepared to make great gestures to save Belgium. The other parties do not dare to take the initiative against the two greats, out of fear to be punished by the voters.
All this makes new elections at the end of September still the most likely outcome. If these confirm both antagonists in their present position, as the (notably unreliable) opinion polls suggest, nothing would seem to be solved.
But in the present mood where talk about separatism is rather subdued, probably everyone underestimates the obvious conclusion that would come out of such an electoral confirmation of the stalemate: if parties representing a majority of the French-speaking or Flemish communities in Belgium do no longer fit together in the same government, is it not time to break-up the country?