Sunday, 12 October 2014

This is the end ...

Belgium has a new government, sworn in at the Royal Palace on Saturday. It represents, in any way, a big shake-up of much that was common sense up to now in Belgian politics. But with some luck – and dependant on the economic evolution of Europe and in Belgium – it could become a major step towards stabilizing a country that only three years ago looked poised for a break-up.

 Charles Michel, the leader of the French-speaking liberals, is the new prime minister of Belgium and at 38 the youngest one since 1832. He leads a coalition of three Flemish parties – the Flemish nationalist NVA, the Christian democratic CDV, and the liberal VLD – and only one French-speaking, his own, the MR. The latter commands only 20 out of the 63 deputies in the Lower House who speak French. But the coalition has 85 of the 150 seats, and the constitution does not prescribe to have  a majority in each language group of the country. Indeed, its only rule is that ‘each decision shall be taken by a majority of the votes’.

At the same time Mr. Michels party has seven ministers in a government of fourteen. This is because of the rules that over the last fourty years and throughout a process of institutional decentralisation have been introduced to protect the (French-speaking) minority of Belgium. One of these rules is that the council of ministers has to have as much French-speaking ministers as Dutch-speaking. Alas, a similar rule has never been introduced for the representation of women who, in the new cabinet, have only three ministers.

In many ways this is quite a peculiar government. Ruling without a majority of seats in one community has been done before, but usually with only one or two seats short of that majority. Now the gap is huge. Another big novelty is that for the first time the political representation in the federal government is for one (French-speaking) part of the country completely different of the representation in the regional government: MR versus the coalition of Christian democrats (CDH) and socialists (PS). This offers a clear-cut choice of two policies – not necessarily left versus right – but could also lead to much bickering, obstruction policies and institutional deadlock.

Quite peculiar, although not entirely new, is that the prime minister is not the leader of the biggest coalition partner. In this case – and by far – this would have been the Flemish nationalist party, with its leader Bart De Wever. But Mr. De Wever has explained why he prefers to stay as mayor of Antwerp, Flanders biggest city: because it was unthinkable for the MR, already vulnerable as the only French-speaking party, to accept the leadership of the same Flemish nationalists that were so strongly demonised by all French-speaking parties before the elections of last May.

It is for the same reason that it was as much necessary that the Flemish nationalists abandoned their institutional agenda – at least for the next five years – to give priority to their centre-right socio-economic aims, which are quite similar to that of the liberals. It is indeed the frustration of the large centre-right electorate in Flanders about twenty-five years of uninterrupted presence of the socialists in all governments, that ballooned the score of the nationalists since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008.

But all this is strong stuff. Here are the Flemish nationalists, still having separatism and an independent Flanders as their ultimate goal, showing extreme restraint to spare their French-speaking coalition partner and to bring some order – at least according to them – to the Belgian household. That paradox could be explained by the strategy of Mr. De Wever, keen on consolidating the huge gains his party made in the last few years. Nothing better for that than showing that he and his party are extremely reasonable people, so it seems. That does not necessarily mean that the separatist goal is abandoned, only that – like with all separatist parties in Europe, and before them with the Parti Quebecois in Canada – you put it solely on the agenda when you have a reasonable chance of succeeding.

The strategy of Mr. De Wever is in this moment probably aimed at the Flemish Christian democrats, whom he holds in an almost suffocating embrace. He already captured a large part of the former right wing electorate of this party – as he did with the Flemish liberals – but now wants definitely to replace CDV as the major and centre ground party in Flanders.

The CDV is not really happy in the coalition, because his left wing –  rooted in the Christian (and biggest) trade union in Belgium – does not like the budget cuts and reforms proposed. But it still hopes, by luring the nationalists into government responsibilities, to destroy their populist image and the electoral free-ride they enjoyed. The relation between these two will be worth to watch closely the next years.

The French-speaking liberals of Mr. Michel also take a huge risk with this coalition. Not for nothing is was first christened as the ‘kamikaze’-coalition by the French-speaking press. Applying a centre-right policy in a region – Wallonia certainly – that has always voted for left-wing policies, besides from a pronounced minority position in your own language group, looks indeed as quite a mission impossible.

But two elements could turn this improbability into a trump card. The first is the electoral victory of the MR in the last elections. Mr. Michel and his political friends are more and more convinced that Wallonia is on its way to genuine economic recovery and development,  and that it is only a matter of time before the eternal left-wing majority there, already crumbling by each new election, will finally disappear.

The second element are the constitutional protections for the linguistic minority in Belgium, such as the parity in the number of ministers, already mentioned. By being alone and in the minority, the MR is also protected against any demands for institutional change, as these, according to the constitution, require a majority in every language group. And again it was precisely their vulnerability towards French-speaking public opinion that made the MR obtain the prime ministership.

So this new coalition, due to its imbalance, has become a government where the coalition partners have to take into account the aspirations and aims of their partner across the language border more than ever before in the last four decades since devolution was started. It shall have to take the moral ground from a Belgian perspective, and to be quite more than the diplomatic conference between two communities it usually was up to now.

That is indeed strong stuff for the Flemish nationalists on board. It could in the best of all scenario’s even lure them into becoming a stabilizing element of the Belgian establishment instead of the despised outsider they were – and were treated as – for almost a century now. Or will they, if that is the evolution, prefer to break up a good government in due time instead?

Strangely  enough, the main opposition party – and the electoral mirror of the Flemish nationalists in the last electoral campaigns wherein they demonised and pushed up each other – is in the same situation. The Parti Socialiste – still the biggest party in Wallonia and Brussels – could indeed start to attack the party of Mr. Michel by claiming that it is constantly betraying the French-speaking citizens in this country, in a clearly undemocratic way.

But then it would have to pick up the cause of regionalism again, and in the end even separatism. It would do exactly what it had reproached – not without reason - to the Flemish nationalists. With a big difference: if the PS in the last decades was always an advocate of keeping Belgium together, this was because it wanted to preserve a unified social security, for which the contributions of the economically stronger Flanders were essential to keep it generous. In other words, by going for an opposition based on nationalists sentiments in the French-speaking part of Belgium, the PS could cut the branch on which it sits.

So it is the liberals who in the end have most achieved their strategic goals in the new government: both a centre-right economic policy, and a necessity to think far more than ever before in terms of a general Belgian interest instead of regional feelings. How fragile this new and surprising balance is, and how long it will last remains of course to be seen.

It will surely also depend on the economic evolution of Europe:  if that gets better, stability inside Belgium will ensue. If it continues to be bad or get worse, new breaches will open, as both Schotland has shown and Catalonia certainly will show. It is also a fact that the economic differences between Flanders and Wallonia are slowly diminishing, whereby the deeper foundation for the antagonism is melting away.  

With all this in mind this seems a good moment to put an end – provisional or definite - to this blog, that was opened with the big struggle of nationalities inside Belgium after the elections now seven years ago. The tables have shifted, and normalcy seems to return. At least for the moment.











Wednesday, 8 October 2014

A new kid in town

 This Saturday Belgium will have a new government, 139 days after the last elections.  That is only a quarter of the length it took last time, in 2010 and 2011. The new centre-right coalition is promising budget cuts and socio-economic reforms. And it will have the youngest prime minister in Belgian history.
 Twenty six hours of uninterrupted negotiations were needed, before on Tuesday the 7th the story broke, perfectly timed a few minutes before the evening news: four political parties – two liberal ones (MR and VLD), plus the Flemish nationalists (NVA) and the Flemish Christian democrats(CDV) - had reached an agreement to start a new federal government. The two co-formateurs, Kris Peeters and Charles Michel, came out of Parliament House to announce it, and made immediately clear that the latter, the 38-year old president of the French-speaking liberals of MR, would become the next prime minister.
The agreement was mainly about cuts and reforms. Contrary to what the previous government – with the socialists – promised to the ever-watching European Commission, Belgium will not reduce its annual budget deficit to zero in 2016, but two years later. The remarkable thing is that it was first the hard-line Flemish nationalists who proposed the move, and the other parties who picked it up. It is not sure the EU will agree, although overthere the discussion about right and wrong in economic policies is in full swing.
The decision has been taken, it is said, to create room for even more urgent reforms: the lowering of social charges paid by employers on wages (going on average from 33 % to 25 %), a tax shift away from charges on labour for a total value of about 1% of gdp, and a one-time general wage freeze next year diminishing salary charges with another amount nearing 0.7 % of gdp. One charge for employers is going slightly upwards: an extra month salary for employees who remain sick for more than one month. This last measure should reduce costs in the sickness insurance.
An unexpected breakthrough was achieved regarding retirement. The age is now fixed at 66 years from 2025 onwards and on 67 years from 2030. Almost all limits on working after retirement – and while keeping your pension – will be lifted. Further budget cuts will be made in the sickness insurance, but no more in unemployment.
The biggest budget cuts have to be obtained by not replacing two out of three of the vast number of officials who retire in the coming years. Some new taxes will be introduced, like a slight raise of the tax on stock market transactions, a further raise of taxes on diesel fuel, and a spectacular novelty: charges on fortunes that are transferred through companies towards countries that are labelled ‘fiscal paradises’. It is already called the Cayman-tax.
It is an ambitious programme for the first genuine centre-right government in Belgium in more than 25 years. Much will depend on the persons mr. Michel and his colleagues will choose as minister. And of course of the positioning of his own party as the only French-speaking one on board, representing only 20 out of the 63 French-speaking deputies in the federal parliament.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Clueless or not?


 ‘This week we want to land’. That was both ‘co-formateurs’ of a new Belgian government, Mr. Charles Michel and Mr. Kris Peeters, announced on Monday. But it remains unclear if they have, after weeks of hesitations, finally found the key to solve all personal issues, caused by an uprising inside Peeters’ party at the beginning of this month.

 Negotiations for an unprecedented coalition of Flemish nationalists, French- and Flemish liberals and Flemish Christian democrats were well under way, so it seemed, in the first weeks after they had resumed in the middle of August. But then came Jean-Claude Juncker, the designated new leader of the European Commission (at the right of the picture).

 Juncker not only pressed Belgium to appoint a candidate for his commission, he also asked explicitly for a woman, to whom he promised a big portfolio. That woman could only be Marianne Thyssen (left on the picture), since 21 years a Christian democratic MEP, and the only woman on the Belgian shortlist. But this collided with the intention of Charles Michel, co-formateur and president of the MR, the French-speaking liberals, to send Didier Reynders to the Commission.

Reynders has for fifteen years been a deputy prime minister of Belgium, but also a longtime rival of Charles Michel, and before that of his father Louis Michel (who went to the Commission between 2004 and 2009 after an election defeat and Reynders taking over the MR). So Michel said: either the Flemish Christian democrats, who are only the third largest party in the new coalition, obtain the prime minister – Kris Peeters – or the EU-commissioner, but not both.

 On September the 1st inside the party bureau of the Flemish Christian Democrats (CDV) , a spontaneaous coalition was formed to support Thyssen, between the European lobby of the party (who is somehow orphan since its key figures in the EU Wilfried Martens and Jean-Luc Dehaene died recently, and because Herman Van Rompuy will retire in december), the Christian trade union, who dislikes the coalition that is to be formed, and maybe even the party president Wouter Beke in whom many see a potential successor for Peeters.

With that unexpected choice of the CDV, it needed a night long mediation by Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, who does not want to be prime ministers (which also would be difficult to defend against Francophone opinion for the MR) to keep the negotiations on track. Indeed, suddenly Kris Peeters saw his chances to become prime minister destroyed, Didier Reynders saw his way to the Commission closed (and reacted somewhat bitterly), and Charles Michel was confronted with the perspective of having to share power in Belgium with Reynders.

 At 9 am on Thursday the 4th of September after twenty hours of non-stop negotiations Michel and Peeters announced that Thyssen would become Commissioner and the next prime minister would be ‘a liberal’. The vagueness of the latter announcement showed that further compromises still had to be worked out.

 Since then the negotiations have stalled. For the last fortnight before Monday there was not even a plenary session of all negotiating teams. For all observers it was clear that the key to unlock the stagnation laid inside the MR. Charles Michel is the obvious candidate to become prime minister, but he wants to be freed from Reynders in his backyard. The latter has already let it know that he wants to succeed Michel as party president. Of course every international topjob for Reynders – who is 56 - could solve the rivalry, but these are not so readily available.

 Other elements have destabilised the negotiations too. The future of the second formateur, Kris Peeters, is all but clear. His party has in the past few weeks put forward some strong demands for new taxes emanating from the Christian trade union. It hopes to find allies inside the MR against the more right wing oriented Flemish nationalists and liberals.

 So the optimism that the two co-formateurs showed on Monday, with all negotiators agains around one table since Sunday afternoon, was met with scepticism. Would Michel take the risk to go for prime ministership and confront Reynders in a vote on his presidency some weeks later? Is there a solution for Kris Peeters? Only in that case, it seems, the final decisions on thorny issues like the pension age, wage restraint and cutting the budget deficit – decisions that have been carefully prepared by experts and need only an ultimate arbitration – will finally be made.



Monday, 18 August 2014

Back on stage

Negotiations for a new federal government in Belgium had a new start on Monday. Four parties - three from Flanders, one from the French-speaking part of Belgium - will try to form the first centre-right federal government since 1987.

After having disappeared from centre stage since they were appointed on the 22d of July, the two federal 'formateurs', the Flemisch christian democrat and former chief minister of Flanders Kris Peeters, and the French-speaking liberal party leader Charles Michel (in the middle of the picture, Mr. De Wever and the Flemish liberal leader, Ms. Rutten, on their side) resurfaced on Monday. They presided over the second formal meeting between party delegations of the NVA (Flemish nationalists), CD&V (Flemish christian democrats), VLD (Flemish liberals) and MR (French-speaking liberals).

At half past six, right in time for the evening news on tv, they made a statement to the press together, just to announce that for the most important budgets – like the one of the sickness insurance -  restrictive norms will be used. The technicians will do the work the next days, until the party leaders meet again on Thursday.

Although most of the negotiators had, at least for a few days, the opportuny to take a break abroad, the negotiations seem not to have halted in the past four weeks of silence. Peeters and Michel Saturday sent the delegations a 15-page note on the budgetary  framework for the next five years, and 150 pages of the first draft of a government agreement.

In the budgetary note they propose a cumulative effort of reducing the deficit of all Belgian authorities with 17,3 billion euro towards 2019. The global deficit of all authorities in Belgium is now at 2,7 % of gdp, which is a structural amount of about 10 billion euro. That was the first subject the negotiators had to discuss on Monday. The main question was if the deficit would be reduced to 0 in 2016, as the EU has asked, or if this target can be postponed towards 2017 or 2018.

The parties will from now  negotiate with a steady rhythm of six days a week, Peeters and Michel also announced. Still it could take weeks before the 165 pages of today have been discussed and worked out towards a genuine agreement. If nothing goes wrong in the meantime …

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Towards a 'Swedish coalition'


It needed a prolonged weekend – with the National Day on Monday – to get the expected breakthrough in Belgian government-negotiations. All the regional governments are now almost in place, and the formula for a federal coalition has been fixed. The hope is that there will be a new Belgian government in September, in the unusual short lapse of time of less than hundred days after the elections.

 Puzzling they were, all participants on negotiations for a new Belgian and new regional governments, for weeks and without showing much signs of progress. But then, on Friday, the agreement for the regional government in Wallonia was announced. It was the expected coalition of Socialists and Christian democrats, with the acting socialist party leader, Paul Magnette, as its new chief-minister.

 It was remarkable to see that both parties dumped some of their leading personalities in the previous federal coalition in the partly common superstructure above the Brussels and Wallonia-government (the government of the Community Wallonia Brussels as it is called, in the higly complicated regional structures of French-speaking Belgium), and that, after the departure of Mr. Magnette as head of the Parti Socialiste, the outgoing prime minister, Mr. Di Rupo, announced that he was again full in charge. All this could only mean that the socialists (and with them the French-speaking Christian democrats of CDH) were now convinced that they would be excluded from the next federal government.

 It seems that once this was confirmed, the negotiations for a new Flemish regional government, that had been stalled for more than a week, were broken open. The two negotiating parties there, the Flemish nationalists (NVA) and Christian democrats (CDV) allowed the liberals (VLD) to join them, although they do not need them for a majority in Flanders. Indeed the liberal party leader, Ms. Gwendolyn Rutten, had always claimed that her party should be present on both levels – the federal and the regional one – or on none. By opening up their coalition, the NVA and CDV confirmed that the liberals could not be missed for a federal coalition.

And so on Tuesday morning, at the end of a night of non-stop negotiations, a new Flemish government was announced, with the competences already distributed and the first names of ministers circulating. The program that was agreed on is stuff for a press conference on Wednesday. Geert Bourgeois, a 63-year old lawyer from Izegem near the coast, and the deputy-chief minister for the Flemish nationalists in the previous Flemish government, will become the new chief minister of Flanders.

 His predecessor, the Christian democrat Kris Peeters, became ‘formateur’ of the federal government on Tuesday evening, together with the outgoing ‘informateur’ Charles Michel, after both have been received by the king (see picture). Indeed Michel could announce that the events of the previous days, and his own party-bureau on Tuesday noon, had paved the way for a centre-right federal coalition of the three coalition partners of the Flemish government, with the French-speaking liberals of Michels MR.

 Many sources indicate that the promise that Kris Peeters could become the next prime minister – even if he said before the elections that he was not interested in that job – paved also the way for this breakthrough, although Peeters himself kept up to the usual formula that ‘the distribution of the portfolio’s starts only after there is an agreement on the government program’.

 Negotiations will anyway start this week, but could still take weeks before the new government is in place. Implicitly some holiday slowdown will be part of the timing, at least in early August. The budgetary necessities – with the EU still watching – will be the hardest nut to crack, as was the case for the regional governments. And other problems could arise before landing sets in somewhere towards the end of next month.

 The breakthrough of the last days is no doubt spectacular, certainly if measured against the time it took in the two previous rounds of government-formation i n Belgium in 2007 and 2010-2011. The new coalition proposed was first named a kamikaze-coalition in the media, suggesting that the French-speaking liberals were taking a suicide-risk by entering a federal government while being backed by only 20 of the 63 French-speaking deputies in the federal parliament. To counter this negative image, the spin doctors of the coalition partners invented, not without success, the name ‘Swedish coalition’, after the Swedish flag: blue (for the liberals) and with a cross (for the Christian democrats) that is painted yellow (the color of the Flemish nationalist).

 Nevertheless this breakthrough comes at a price. For the first time since devolution started forty years ago, half of the country – the French-speaking part in this case - is represented by totally different parties in the federal and the regional government. The eviction of the socialists to make for the first time in 25 years a federal government possible without them, has come at the price of the utmost polarisation in French-speaking Belgium. One of the motive to take the risk for the MR was indeed their revenge for the socialist keeping them out of the regional governments for another 5 years (after already 10) although they were the clear winner of the elections.

 The benefit is that the centre-right frustration in Flanders after 25 years without a centre-right government – the driving force behind a booming nationalist party - might now diminish. There might be even a genuine attempt to try to stabilise Flemish nationalism – now by far the biggest political force in Flanders - as movement within Belgium instead as a force keen on destroying Belgium.

 The clue, as Mr. Michel explained in an open letter to his party members on Tuesday, is that he could make a coalition with the in French-speaking Belgium so much despised Flemish nationalists because these seem to have accepted that they could leave every demand for further devolution aside for the next five years if they could execute most of their centre-right economic program.

 The MR can help with the latter, but will always try to keep the centre-ground in French-speaking Belgium (which is usually rather left to the center there), out of fear of being accused of betraying the cause of Wallonia and Brussels. In that case the Flemish nationalists will have to keep their nerve, or fall back to a conclusion they were always convinced of: it is hopeless with all Walloons, not a question of right versus left, but of Flemish against Walloons. Come and see in 2019, or even earlier …



Thursday, 17 July 2014

Still puzzling

 Fifty-three days after the elections there is still not a single government formed in Belgium (nor an official proposal for the Belgian candidate for the next European Commission). But the sky is full of rumours about personal careers, probable coalitions, great expectations for the days to come and above all the fact that all these backroom-discussions  are intensely interlinked.

 The only concrete news of the last two weeks was the agreement the parties negotiating a new government for the Brussels region announced on Monday, with a slight rise in the property taxes as most discussed element. Socialists and Christian democrats of both communities, the Flemish liberals and the French-speaking Brussels nationalists will – at least formally - rule the Capital region for the next five years.

 But the Brussels parties concerned are not in a hurry to confirm the agreement through votes in party congresses, or by nominating the new ministers. This  coincides with the unusual long time it takes to form both the Flemish and the Walloon regional governments. For the former the Flemish nationalists and Christian democrats are negotiating, for the latter the socialists and Christian democrats.

 Most observers think this has to do with the formation of the federal government. There the ‘informateur’, Mr. Charles Michel, who after twenty days still has to make his first official statement, seems to be working at an unusual centre-right coalition of the two liberal parties, the Flemish nationalists and the Flemish Christian democrats.

  Such a coalition would have a clear majority in the federal parliament (85/150), but would be supported by only 20 of the 63 French-speaking MEP’s. The constitution allows this, but politically it is a delicate affair. Mr. Michels MR, confronted with the perspective of being excluded from power in the regions for a period of 15 years (since 2004), seems now nevertheless ready to take the risk, even in a coalition with the Flemish nationalists.

 But there are other obstacles, most of them officially unconfirmed, that have to be put aside. To name but a few: the Flemish Christian democrats want to obtain a mandate as government leader either in the Flemish or the Belgian government (probably for their figurehead during the elections, Mr. Kris Peeters, although he did not score that well and although they are only the 4th group in Parliament nowadays); the Flemish liberals want to be part of both the regional and the federal government (whereas the former is almost formed without them); the next European commissioner is part of the deal and not yet designated. Only the Flemish nationalists do not make great fuzz about possible mandates, as they are in the comfortable position of having anyway far more of it than before the elections.

 It is now generally accepted that the different negotiations are strongly interlinked. In the end it is indeed the party-headquarters who decide who becomes what, and in which government. Political parties are the strongest institutions in Belgium, making all talks about federalism, confederalism or separatism slightly irrelevant.

 A likely scenario therefore is that the negotiations for the regional coalitions in Flanders and Wallonia will land somewhere early next week, and that shortly thereafter Mr. Michel will be able to announce the formal start of negotiations for a federal government in the unusual centre-right structure with his party as the only one representing the French-speaking voters. These negotiations could then, with a more or less official break for a week or two, lead to a new government somewhere in September.

But, as said, nothing is official, nothing is confirmed. Much can still go wrong, and change.




Sunday, 29 June 2014

Battle of wills



The new ‘informateur’ to form a federal government, Mr. Charles Michel, will see Mr. Bart De Wever, the Flemish nationalist leader, on Monday morning, after he had a 90 minutes long talk with Elio di Rupo, the outgoing prime minister and leader of the French-speaking socialists (PS), on Saturday (picture). Mr. Michel, who received the vaguely defined mission to ‘explore possible formula’s to form a government’, seems to want to take his time.
Mr. Charles Michel is 38, leader of the French-speaking liberals (MR), mayor of the small town of Wavre to the south of Brussels, and son of the former European Commissioner Louis Michel. King Philip appointed him as new ‘informateur’ on Friday noon, after the resignation of Mr. Bart De Wever on Wednesday. Contrary to his father Albert – who in previous crises showed creativity in finding new names for each mission to form a government (pre-informateur, eclaireur, conciliateur ..) – the new King Philip seems to stick to the classic terminology of ‘informateur’ and ‘formateur’.
After seeing the unions and the business associations, Mr. Michel had a long talk with Mr. Elio di Rupo on Saturday. The ‘informateur’ insisted  that this was a consultation of the outgoing prime minister. The president of the Parti Socialiste, the same Mr. di Rupo, he will consult on Monday, after having seen the leader of the largest party in the new parliament, Mr. De Wever. Relations between Michel and di Rupo have been tense since the latter excluded the former from the negotiations for regional governments in early June.
Very few has been heard the last weeks about the attempts to form the regional governments. Most observers nevertheless expect some final rounds of negotiations towards the end of the week, or early next week. In Flanders NVA and CDV are negotiating, in Wallonia PS and CDH and in Brussels PS, CDH and FDF, together with the smaller Flemish parties (liberals, socialists and Christian democrats).
The next federal government remains a big question mark. All formula’s seem to lie on the table, and Mr. Michel is clearly taking his time. After the failure of Mr. De Wever to form a centre-right government of his own party, the two Christian democratic parties and the MR, a cooling off period seems indeed necessary. The French-speaking liberals, who are centre-right in mostly centre-left Wallonia, are well-positioned to keep on speaking terms with everybody.
But the big issue remains the veto the biggest party in each community is putting up against the other one. Spokesman of PS, CDH and FDF repeated on Sunday they would not enter a government with the Flemish nationalists of NVA. The latter on the other hand has been trying to form explicitly a government without the PS. And all the smaller parties are under pressure from the leading one in their community  not to ‘betray the interests of their community’.
It could take a long time – or even eternity – before the logic conclusion that the two dominant parties are doomed to rule the country together, will be reached.  

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The end of Belgiums consensus-policies

 While the national football team of Belgium has reached the second round of the World Cup for the first time since 2002, amidst a national frenzy  never seen before, the formation of a national Belgium government has again become a highly challenging matter. Mr. Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists and winner of the parliamentary elections of the 25th of May, is about to hand over his resignation to king Philip today, as he has failed in his task to lay the groundwork for the formation of a new government.
 De Wevers party, the NVA, gained six seats in the federal parliament in last elections, whereas the second best winner, the communist PTB, won two. The latter seats were lost by the Parti Socialiste (PS), the biggest party in French-speaking Belgium, led by the outgoing prime minister Elio di Rupo. It now has 24 MP’s, whereas De Wever has 33. Di Rupo’s party is the only one of the six in the outgoing government that lost seats. The two liberals parties and the Flemish Christian democrats gained one each.
Having been charged with ‘informing’ the King about the prospects for a new government on the 27th of May, the nationalist leader has been working on a centre-right coalition since then. He wanted, in his own words before the election, make a government without the socialists for the first time in 25 years. To do so he needed to lure the French-speaking liberals and Christian democrats into talks. Although it is no legal obligation nor a fix tradition to have a majority in each language group, both parties together have only 28 of the 63 seats for French-speaking parties.
  But the PS, still the biggest party in both the Brussels and Wallonia regions, and with Mr. di Rupo in front, announced on the 5th of June that it would immediately form a ‘progressive’ coalition with the French-speaking Christian democrats (CDH) in both regional governments. Since then, and especially in the last week,  it is obvious that the PS was pressing the CDH to stay out of Mr. De Wevers would-be federal government. Today the Christian democrats, regardless of the lobbying of their Flemish counterparts, complied, when their president, Benoit Lutgen, announced live in the evening newsshow of RTL that ‘there is no confidence’ between him and Mr. De Wever. The latter now will have to hand in his resignation.
The key to understand these developments is that with the announcement of the 5th of June, Mr. di Rupo gave priority to the regional governments over the federal one. Although this move was probably done because of the electoral defeat of the party, it is nevertheless logic. Regional coalitions need two or three parties at most to agree, whereas on the federal level federal it takes at least four (and usually more) parties to obtain a stable government. And as the electoral landscape in the north of the country differs strongly from that in the south, it is not so easy to obtain the same coalition in the federal and all regional governments.
The paradoxes in this new development since early June are manifold. In the institutional reforms of the previous government of Mr. di Rupo, regional and national elections were put on the same day again, to have less elections with national impact – now on average every two years – and to make the same coalition on all levels possible. The political pipedream was that with at least four years without an election until the local polls at the end of 2018, and with similar coalitions everywhere, the country would at last be able to make some urgent social and economic reforms.
 Mr. De Wever, in opposition before the elections, heavily denounced this as an attempt to cut the wings of the regional governments, especially the Flemish one. He announced that the first thing he would do after victory was to form a centre-right coalition in Flanders region to influence the formation of the federal government. For this he was denounced by the PS as a separatist. After the elections both Mr. De Wever and Mr. di Rupo have made a complete turnaround. Lured into federal responsibilities by the king and his Flemish Christian democrat friends, Mr. De Wever forgot about his threat, whereas Mr. di Rupo, beleaguered by the forces of defeat, put it into practice.
Mr. Paul Magnette, the acting president of the PS as long as Mr. di Rupo is prime minister, last week proposed to give up the idea that regional and federal elections should be held on the same day. Again this is both a logic conclusion of the latest events, and totally the opposite of what he and his party defended before the elections. Such a reform is quite feasible in the next years, but would probably be the first step towards a new round of institutional reforms that everybody before the elections – except for the NVA – wanted to avoid.
 Regardless of the bitter emotions these betrayals have instigated, they point to the same unmistakable fact: both the PS and the NVA use their leading position in each of the two communities in Belgium as a stronghold from which they (might) start their conquest of the federal government. And keep the other one out: in this first phase of probably long negotiations, Mr. De Wever has put a veto in all but name on a federal coalition with the PS. In an interview last Thursday Mr. di Rupo did the same, by saying that no decent party of the French-speaking part of Belgium can enter into a coalition with the separatists of the NVA.
The federal government has become a battlefield of nationalist perceptions: if it will be centre-left, this will be perceived as a defeat for Flanders; if it turns centre-right, it will be pictured as bad for French-speaking Belgium. Such is the cleavage between the global electorates in the north and the south of the country – Mr. De Wever talks of ‘conflicting democracies inside one country’ – that most of the possible coalitions in the federal government could be perceived as the defeat of one community.
Could a new coalition of the three traditional parties, like in the outgoing government, be presented as the moderate centre, neither left nor right? Probably not anymore. Mr. De Wever build his latest electoral victory in Flanders on precisely the image that this government was too leftist and going against the interests of Flanders. After his blatant failure to lure French-speaking parties into a federal government, he will make this point stronger than ever. As for the PS, it is, after its losses against the extreme left, probably no longer prepared to make the same concessions to some centre-right wishes of the Flemish electorate as Mr. di Rupo did in his first term.
In the Netherlands in 2012 the strongest opponents – the liberals and the socialists – also won the elections by polarising the electorate. They decided almost on the evening of the elections to be pragmatic and to build a coalition of  both, as there was no alternative. Due to the nationalistic polarisation inside Belgium, which adds to the one between left and right, this is far less evident. But even if NVA and PS would find a compromise, it would probably be built on very limited ambitions.
Obviously the most logic solution for every neutral observer is that, when you have such different electorates and parties in each part of the country and they are no longer capable of making compromises with each other after elections, due to the pressure of voters and media, then you have to decentralise the country as far as is thinkable. Almost as far as Switzerland, leaving to the centre only the competence on which everybody agrees that they cannot be assigned to the lower government levels.  The problem with this scenario is that French-speaking Belgium refuses it.
Due to the long economic decline of Wallonia in the second half of the 20th century, the south of Belgium still has  a long way to go before it can on its own produce the level of prosperity of the north. Up to now it can, via the federal government, tap into the economic benefits of Flanders to pay, among other things, a generous and large unemployment bill and the cost of a quite a generous social security in general.
But for Flanders, that has run into economic troubles itself since about a decade, it is less and less acceptable to be refused a centre-right government that could lower the record tax rates, temper the still fast rising costs of social security or reduce the surplus in average wage cost in industry compared to the neighbouring countries.  Saying no to the winner of the elections, to centre-right (after 25 years of centre-left) and to further devolution at the same time, is probably the shortest way to make separatism in Flanders the most reasonable alternative. Implicitly, already a third of the electorate is in favour. That is already a huge number to keep stability in a country structure.
 In the end the impossibility to bring on a new federal government might generate creative solutions. In the nineteen eighties, the first regional governments were coalitions that reflected the proportional division of power between the parties in the regional parliaments. If this should be applied today to the federal government (always composed of seven Flemish and seven French-speaking ministers) you would have a coalition of the three traditional parties in both communities, with the NVA. The latter would also deliver the prime minister. Such stabilising and face-saving scenarios are not unthinkable, but they show as much that the normal democratic process in the formation of a Belgian government is deeply disturbed.
For the moment Belgium seems again on its way to a record-breaking long negotiation for a new government, with a new institutional imbroglio is in the cards. The idea that the next four years could at last be the big opportunity to pursue much-need reforms in the country is now indeed only a pipedream. On the contrary, the growing political complexities of this small and often successful country, are now rapidly weakening it, with the ghost of separatism closing in fast.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Into the slow lane again

Coalition talks for regional and the national governments are underway in Belgium, with the negotiations on the federal government again in the slow lane. There Mr. Bart De Wever, the 'informateur',  is still seeking to form a centre-right coalition without socialists, something not seen in Belgium since 1987. The good news is that no one is breaking the confidentiality of the talks yet.

 Mr. De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist and since the 27th of May 'infomateur' of king Philipp to create a new federal government, is not so fond of football, it is said. So he remained undisturbed by the bigger-than-ever frenzy in the country around the national football team (with half of the players competing in Englands Premier League). On Tuesday, when the so called Red Devils won their first match on a World Championship in 12 years (2-1 against Algeria),  De Wever was briefing his party council - Flemish nationalists,  but many nevertheless keen to see the match - about his weekly meeting with king Philipp and the work ahead.

 For the second time in a row the king had given De Wever a week extra to finish what had twice been announced as his final report. That is a sign that the winner of the elections is still making progress - albeit a very slow one – in his attempt to bring his party, both christian democrats, and the French-speaking liberals of the MR around the table to form a new coalition.

 Real formal negatiations are still far ahead, because of the scepticism of all French-speaking parties about the real aims of the Flemish nationalists – do they want to break-up Belgium or not? -  and because the French-speaking Christian democrats of the CDH already decided to link with the socialists in the negotiations for the regional governments in Wallonia and Brussels. To soften some of the suspicions, De Wever seems to have made a vague note on socio-economic reform, but with one element undoubtedly absent: a demand for further devolution

 Flemish newsmedia tend to believe that the Parti Socialiste, the biggest French-speaking party and during the election campaign De Wevers favourite target, is no longer interested in the federal government. The socialists, so goes the story, fear new budget cuts like the ones that have already undermined their position against the far left in their strongholds of Liège and Hainaut during the government of Mr. di Rupo.

 More likely a power struggle is underway in the party, with generations at stake more than ideologies, as the position of Mr. di Rupo, since 1999 its leader, seems no longer secure.  In that context it could be a wrong assumption that the PS is going to give its junior coalition partner, the CDH, the freedom to form a right wing federal government against the … PS. French-speaking media at least do not believe in it.

There is still some talk of an alternative federal centre-right government, with three Flemish parties – NVA, CD&V and the liberal VLD – and only one French-speaking, the liberal MR. Due to the constitutional obligation of having as much Flemish as French-speaking ministers in each federal government, this could give the MR a lavish number of seven ministers (in a group of 18 MP’s). But alone in a federal coalition, together with the despised Flemish nationalists, and with 35 other French-speaking MP’s in the federal parliament in opposition, this scenario looks also very much as political hara-kiri.

 The logic now is that CDH will at least wait until it has a firm agreement with the PS in the regional governments. Even then it will – at least in the perception - not be so easy to betray its new partner by keeping him out of a new federal government.  This is the logic of confederalism: the regional governments are first formed and this process influences what happens with the federal one.

 The conclusion of regional coalition agreements is expected early in July, as well for the Flemish regional government, where the nationalist and the Christian democrats have a strong majority together. Only then the negotiations for the federal government will really start, or immediately get stucked in an impasse. The Belgians who believe a new government will be in place before the summer are rapidly diminishing in numbers.

 Mr. De Wever can easily live with this, and go along with his mission for a long time to come. In the intellectual debate everything is going his way. Before the elections he said more devolution was urgently needed as Belgium is composed of two democracies, one dominated by the centre-right in Flanders, another one dominated by the centre-left in Wallonia and Brussels (see picture with the map of the biggest party in each electoral district: yellow is the Flemish nationalists, red is the socialist, blue the liberals, and orange the Christian democrats).
 That is why he proposed to form the regional government in Flanders first and as soon as possible to prepare for the struggle for the federal government. In De Wevers words it was time to change a quarter of a century of uninterrupted centre-left rule in Belgium to a government prepared to consider the real needs of Flanders. For such talk he was again condemned almost unanimously by the Frenchs-speaking parties and media as the veiled separatist they always have seen in him.

 Immediately after the election both king Philipp and the Flemish Christian Democrats and liberals urged De Wever, as winner of the election, to forget that scenario and to form the federal government first. The nationalist leader complied, only to be taken in speed by Mr. di Rupo himself and his PS, who after only ten days decided to form their regional coalitions first.

 Since then the battle over the perception of the new federal government – centre-right and so good for Flanders, or centre-left, and a victory for French-speaking Belgium – is well under way. A simple solution is not in the cards, not even the coalition of the three traditional parties that made up the outgoing government, because this was denounced as being centre-left by De Wever and his party, with success.

 What remains is a new institutional reform , to adapt to the new realities, and make some quite inventive solutions – why not a proportional all-partygovernment in the Swiss way – possible.  If this is not possible immediately, it should happen somewhere in the next years. Mr. De Wever does not even have to propose further measures for devolution. They have, in deeds if not in words, been put on the table by his strongest opponents. And there is no way to get them away there again.







Friday, 6 June 2014

The remains of a nation

One day after Wallonia and Brussels, Mr. Bart De Wever, still the federal 'informateur', announced that the Flemish nationalists and Flemish christian democrats would try to form a new regional government in Flanders. It is now most likely that it will be the regional coalitions that will form a federal government later. The devolution process in Belgium has made a new big leap forward.

At a new conference at 5 pm and after a night of negotiations Mr. De Wever (picture, in the middle) and the outgoing chief-minister of the Flemish region, Mr. Kris Peeters (picture, right) announced that their respective parties, NVA and CDV, would try to form the new regional government in the next few weeks. Like in the south of the country, it is mostly the outgoing coalition that is continued, albeit in Flanders without the socialdemocratic SPA.

Ms. Gwendolyn Rutten, the president of the Flemish liberal VLD - who will remain in opposition on the regional level as they are since 2009 - immediately suggested that her party in that case will no longer be interested to be a part of the next federal government. Rutten had advocated strong cooperation between the different levels during the election campaign.

But as in Wallonia, and certainly after the events of Thursday, the democratic logic pointed to a coalition of the two largest parties in Flanders. The democratic impuls of the regional elections has proved to be stronger than the political intention to soften the big electoral differences in the north and the south by imposing the same coalitions on all levels. The latter was a major feature of the last institutional reform of 2013.

In a sense the next federal government will now most probably be made to the image of the regional governments, bringing together a centre-right coalition in Flanders and a centre left in Wallonia. It is doubtful such a coalition could concentrate on much needed economic reforms in the next five years.

If anything, the events of the last days have shown that a new institutional reform is inevitable, as the process of devolution has in practice gone far faster than many expected. Mr. De Wever will report on his attempts to form a new federal government at the Royal Palace on Tuesday. It is far from sure that he will be able to detect by then a clearcut way to continue for king Philipp.

Federalism of the trenches

There was a breakthrough Thursday in the multitude of negotiations to form a federal and regional governments in Belgium after the elections of the 25th of May. For Wallonia  the French-speaking socialists and christian democrats announced they would form a coalition. In Brussels they will do the same, together with the Brussels-nationalists of the FDF. Although quite logic for these regional governments, this new turn in events is likely to make the formation of a new federal government more difficult. Just as it was four years ago.

The news was tweeted by prime minister Elio di Rupo in his role as president of the French-speaking socialists (PS) shortly before 4 pm on Thursday. Half an hour later, he and his colleagues, Benoit Lutgen, the president of the christian democratic CDH and Olivier Maingain of the FDF gave a press conference to announce that negotiations would start on saturday (picture)

The French-speaking liberals of the MR, who understood that for the third consecutive legislature they would be sent to the opposition in the regional governments in Brussels and Wallony, reacted furiously. 'The winners of the elections are put aside, the voters are betrayed, and the formation of a federal government is made extremely difficult', Mr. Charles Michel, their party president, declared.

Indeed the logic of the last institutional reform, voted last year, was that by putting regional and national elections on the same day again, federal and regional governments would be formed as much as possible in coordination, with preferably the same coalitions, to make better cooperation possible. By not waiting until the end of the information round on the federal level by Mr. Bart De Wever, PS, CDH and FDF yesterday blew up that logic.

At the same time they were caught in a democratic catch 22-situation: the three major parties in French-speaking Belgium could each obtain a majority in Wallony and Brussels with only one partner of the other two. And speaking in terms of making the smallest stable majority with the lowest number of parties, the logic pointed to a renewal of the coalition of PS and CDH.

Comments immediately were made that the whole announcement was a blow in the face of Mr. De Wever, who for the last nine days had tried in full silence to form a federal centre-right coalition with the MR and the CDH. It is indeed very unlikely that Mr. Lutgen will now continue to negotiate together with an MR that feels betrayed by him. With rather unusual caution Mr. De Wever and his party preferred not to react immediately on the new developments.

His potential coalition partners in Flanders, the christian democratic CDV and the liberal VLD, did, but indirectly. Earlier in the day, it was announced that liberals, christian democrats and socialists would try to form the small, but constitutionally essential Flemish part of the Brussels regional government, and that they would take up contact for that with the PS and the French-speaking parties in the capital. After the announcement of Mr. Di Rupo however the national presidents of CDV and VLD declared that it was impossible for them to negotiate with the FDF, the party of the (French-speaking) Brussels nationalists.

It was seen as a measure to placate the Flemish public opinion with a tit for tat. Indeed it was Mr. De Wever who in his nationalist rhetoric had announced before the elections that he would form a centre-right regional government in Flanders first to take up the fight about the federal coalition with the centre-left-wing coalition that would probably emerge in French-speaking Belgium. After having won the elections and been put in command to form a federal coalition by king Philipp, he did not repeat that promise and did not act accordingly either. That concession seems now not to have paid, to say the least. 

And so Belgium has again entered the logic of - we are in 2014 - the 'federalism of the trenches'. The formation of a new federal government is, like it was in 2010, ,a story of different democratic logics in the north and the south of the country. The attempt to keep up some coherence on the federal level without taking much account of the subsidiarity of different democratic voting patterns in the north and the south of the country, has now been shattered by those parties who made the loudest claim that it was the Flemish nationalists who undermined Belgium.

It could take months to get out of the impasse that was reached yesterday. And indeed the most remarkable aspect of the events on Thursday is that it was the outgoing prime minister who blew up the attempt of his Flemish nationalist rival to keep up some federal appearences. For many this indicated that Mr. Di Rupo had no more hope to become the next prime minister.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

An elephant in the room

 Mr. Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists and the biggest winner of Sunday’s general elections in Belgium, met the leaders of all French-speaking parties on Wednesday, as he started his negotiations to form a new Belgian government. He was designated as ‘informateur’ by king Philip on Tuesday noon. For the next days he  will stay out of the spotlights, until he has to report to the king next Tuesday.
 To the joy of all media Mr. De Wever invited the Parti Socialiste as his first guests for coffee and cola light in a meeting room in the House of Parliament on Wednesday morning. Having scolded the biggest French-speaking party as the main problem of the country all over his campaign, it was today a rather frosty reunion with Mr. di Rupo , whom he had not spoken or met since the summer of 2011. The prime minister was accompanied by Mr. Paul Magnette, the mayor of Charleroi and officially the ‘acting party president’ (Mr. di Rupo being the real one). As Mr. Magnette is twenty years younger and a rising star, the journalists made fun about the ‘co-présidents’ of the party (picture: from left to right: De Wever, di Rupo, Magnette)
 Few was said after the one hour meeting, except that Mr. di Rupo claimed that ‘the institutional questions are no longer on the agenda’. The other French-speaking party-presidents later in the day seemed to confirm that Mr. De Wever is putting social and economic questions first and is, at least for the moment, not insisting on measures to bridge – or widen, say some - the gap between Flemish and French-speaking Belgium. But scepticism remained the tone, if only because in the nationalist rituals inside Belgium no French-speaking party president can allow himself to be kind to the Flemish nationalists (and vice versa).
The nationalists tensions inside the country may not have been discussed, they are tindeed he elephant in the room. Mr. Philippe Moureaux, the 75 years old former PS-leader in Brussels (and a longtime old hand of the late Mr. Jean-Luc Dehaene), remarked in an interview on Wednesday how  the south of the country had shifted to the left and the north strongly to the right in the elections.
Mr. De Wever will start the negotiations to form a new Flemish regional government from Thursday onwards. Due to the latest institutional reform of 2012-14, that level will henceforth have more money to spend than the federal government.  Elio di Rupo will, as president of the biggest French-speaking party, start the same process for the Brussels and Walloon regional governments on Friday.
The latter could be seen as a sign that the prime minister wants to prevent the negotiations for regional governments to start a life on their own. Earlier on there was much talk that Mr. Magnette would form the Walloon government and Ms. Laurette Onkelinx, deputy prime minister and head of the party in Brussels, the regional government of the capital city.
Meanwhile the idea that Mr. De Wever would and could form a government without the socialists – and thus provoke the same kind of coalitions on all levels – is gradually abandoned.  Coalitions without the PS have too fragile majorities in Brussels and Wallony. The liberal MR is indeed behaving extremely humble these days not to upset the PS, who could as well go for a more left wing coalition with the Christian Democrats.
In both cases it will become very difficult to form a coherent coalition for the national government with a more or less centre-right majority build around the NVA in Flanders. It is one of the reasons why the reconduction of the six-party-coalition of the three traditional ideologies (liberal, Christian democrats, socialists) is still very much in the cards.
‘So if you make a federal government around the Flemish nationalists, all French-speaking parties are unhappy’, said Mr. Moureaux. ‘If you do again without the NVA, the same feeling will spread all over Flanders. It has simply become almost impossible to make a federal government that is credible in both parts of the country. In the end someone will have to blink.’
The elephant has never been as much present….