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….


Monday, 26 May 2014

The hour of the Flemish nationalists


The Flemish nationalist party NVA is again the biggest winner of parliamentary and regional elections in Belgium last Sunday. It's leader, Mr. Bart de Wever, has already indicated his willingness to form the next national government and the regional one in Flanders.  But the six parties that governed the country under the leadership of mr. Elio di Rupo for the last two years, did not lose, except for the socialists. They might still go for a second term.

Mr. De Wever and his party finally obtained a better result than even the polls had predicted, gaining 4,4 % of the votes in Flanders, and ending up with 33 seats (+6) in the federal parliament of 150. The Lower House has not seen such a strong group for forty years. The second largest group, the Parti socialiste of the prime minister, has now 24 seats (-2).

The other parties of the outgoing coalition kept their seats (Flemish socialists SPA and French-speaking Christian democrats CDH) or gained one (both liberal parties MR and VLD, and the Flemish Christian democrats CDV). The only big loser is the Flemish extreme right and nationalist Vlaams Belang, that lost 9 seats. Ten years ago, in regional elections, it was once the biggest party in Flanders with 24 % of the votes, but its electorate has almost completely been taken over by the NVA.

  Mr. De Wever is now clearly poised to take up the command of the formation of a new Belgian government. In the last days before the polls he for the first time said he was ready to do so ‘if needed’. His mission will be complicated by the fact that Sunday also four new regional parliaments were elected, and governments have to be formed there too. De Wever has indicated his preference for coalitions without the socialists - who have been continuously in the government since 1988. The poll results create some opportunities for such a scenario.

 But as always it will need time an delicate manoeuvring to achieve such combinations. At least the Flemish parties are willing to leave the initiative now totally to Mr. de Wever, some in the obvious hope that he will break his neck along the road. Then a return to the present coalition could be proposed as the inevitable alternative. But there were warnings on Monday that such a scenario would be quite a rebuke of the will of a large part of the Flemish electorate, with the risk of creating still more frustration and instability.

 So Belgium is in for many weeks if not months of negotiations again, although everybody is swearing holy oaths that it should not take 540 days this time. In the meantime European elections went along almost unnoticed. The liberals of Mr. Verhofstadt, the former prime minister who made an excellent personal score, are now the largest group in Belgium with 6 seats (+1). The Christian democrats and socialists ended up with 4 (for both a loss of one). That is as much as the Flemish nationalist (+ 3) who will decide in the next days which group in the new European Parliament they will join.


Sunday, 25 May 2014

Terror on the last day

 Three people were shot dead and one gravely wounded by an unknown killer yesterday afternoon in the Jewish Museum in the heart of Brussels. The incident, that looked very much as an act of anti-Semitism, brought the electoral campaign in Belgium to a sudden end.  The author of the crime is still at large.

 The Jewish Museum nearby the very fashionable Zavel in Brussels is a quiet little museum, with collections of former synagogues. It is as much a guide to Europe’s past, seen from the point of view of its fragile Jewish communities.  It has some protective measures, such as camera’s and a protection against an attack by car. But as it was open to all public, it was only permanently protected by police on events with large Jewish attendance. It may therefore have  been chosen as a target, instead of the nearby Great Synagoge of Brussels.

 At 3:50 PM yesterday an Audi car stopped in front of the museum. One man came out, entered into the museum and shot two visitors, an Israëli’s couple, Mr and Ms. Riva, aged 54 and 53, from Tel-Aviv, and two employees of the museum: one 60-year old French women, who worked as a volunteer, and a 23-years old Belgian employee. The shooter meticulously aimed at the heads of the victims. The first three died immediately, the fourth one is still struggling for his life in the nearby Saint-Pierre-hospital. The perpetrator then ran out of the museum and disappeared in the small streets of this old city-quarter.

 It was the Belgian deputy prime minister Didier Reynders, who was just campaigning on the Zavel, who called the ambulances. Politicians of all parties came to the scene and immediately condemned the attack. Jewish leaders of Belgium reacted angrily about what they saw as a clear act of anti-Semitism. At a brief press conference in the evening, the prime minister, Mr. Elio di Rupo, the minister of Justice, Ms. Annemie Turtelboom, and the minister of the Interior, Ms. Joëlle Milquet, all expressed their belief that anti-Semitism was a likely motive, but also stressed that only the judicial inquiry could confirm this. This Sunday the police will bring out a portrait of the perpetrator, based on the camera images in the museum.

 The attack pushed all electoral news to the background of news media. The Flemish commercial television cancelled its last debate between party presidents. Most politicians ended their campaign.






Monday, 19 May 2014

Background: A testcase for Europe



 Far from being in trouble, Belgium belongs, as far as economic performances are concerned, to the better part of the middle group of EU-nations. Politically it has been stable for decades, without violent conflicts and with only eleven prime ministers in the last 50 years (as much as the Netherlands). So why does it looks as if this small Western European country of 11 million citizens is at a crossroad?

 Like Italy Belgium has a history of strong cities and counties, and endless wars, fought on its territory by its neighbours. When the nineteenth century came, liberals tried to break the dominance of the omnipresent catholic church. And with universal suffrage new forces appeared on the scene: socialism and nationalism. With one specific Belgian feature: in the still mainly rural north – and not unlike in Bohemia or Poland - the masses spoke a different language (Dutch) than the elite (French). So the nationalism that came out of universal suffrage was a Flemish one (Flemish is almost similar to Dutch), whereas socialism was mainly a force – and a very strong one - in the industrial regions of Wallony (see the articles ‘Old quarrel, new twist’ on this blog in September 2007).

Unlike Switzerland Belgium did not try to manage this cocktail of diversity by extreme decentralisation (the subsidiarity that EU-institutions often praise but never wholeheartedly apply). From its very independence in 1830 it was a country of political pragmatism and compromise, not the least because it was only the third fully-democratic country in the world after Britain and the United States. And when needed the ruling elite was always ready to suck the dissidents – when these became too powerful – into the system. This happened with the socialists during World War I.

It was a far more complicated affair with the Flemish nationalists, not the least because they were twice lured into collaboration by the German invader in  both World Wars. Only fifty years ago a process of devolution was started. The hard core of the Flemish nationalist movement has been asking for more ever since, only to reject each institutional compromise that was made en route – six since 1970 . That hard core, that is part of the nationalist party NVA,  is nowadays hoping for a split-up of Belgium and an independent Flanders.

The former prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, who died last week, was a champion in managing the diversity of this country through backroom deals and sometimes even slightly absurd compromise-packages that were wilfully made complicated, so that no one could really understand what everybody around the table had given up. His predecessor Wilfried Martens, the long-time president of the European People’s Party who passed away last autumn, was also a master in this art, as is the present President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, who was prime minister of Belgium in 2009 (See for Van Rompuy and Martens ‘Background: Three years of immobility’ on this blog in August 2010).

Dehaenes successor as prime minister Guy Verhofstadt (See ‘enter the prime minister’ on this blog in December 2007), nowadays a star in the election battle for the next leader of the Commission, had a different method but with the same results: he developed and promoted visionary reforms, but in time made his own subtle and opaque compromise-packages after bringing everybody together around a good meal and being generous to all his coalition-partners.


Still it is probably the present prime minister, Elio di Rupo, who could stand as a symbol of how far diversity has taken root in Belgium. Like Martens (and another former prime minister, Achiel Van Acker, who ruled the country after the Second World War) he was born in a desperately poor family, but picked up early as a talent for a state grant to finance his studies, and so started his career. Being the son of an Italian immigrant, he succeeded in becoming prime minister, although he is only the second French-speaking socialist to do so. Most astonishing is that he is openly gay, but that this has not for a single moment been a point of discussion in the country, not even after a few drinks in the backrooms of conservative catholics.

On the other hand political tensions have been on the rise again, since the bank-crisis in 2008 started five years of economic distress. Belgium weathered the biggest depression in eighty years not too badly, according to the recent report of the IMF. It is one of the three western European countries where gdp is now slightly higher than it was in 2008. The rise in unemployment and of Belgium’s  global debt during the five years of crisis have been among the lowest in Europe.

At the same time the country has the highest tax rates in Europe after Denmark. Its industry – especially the most labour-intensive – suffers from too high wage-costs, compared to its neighbours, although the IMF signals that in this at least as much the slowing of productivity is playing a role. Traffic jams,  overregulation, confusing laws due to the process of devolution, far too many civil servants, a badly managed migration and too fast rising social security costs for the sickness insurance and the pensions are the biggest burdens on the way to renewed economic prosperity.


It is on these deficiencies – that are worries for the future without yet staining the economic statistics of today – that the Flemish nationalists and their leader Bart De Wever have been capitalising. They prone a radical change to more right-wing economic policies, after 25 years of centre-left rule with the socialists almost permanently in all governments. That program seems to bear fruits in the frustration of many Flemish about the economic decline of their region (see ‘Background: the final failure of quite a good government’). Latest export statistics suggest that Wallony could indeed come better out of the crisis than the now still more prosperous north.

All this brings the country at a crossroad, when, as is expected, Mr. De Wever and his NVA would score an  overall victory in next weekend’s general elections (for both the federal en regional parliaments). What follows then is not yet clear. His track record as a mayor of Antwerp, Flanders biggest city, since 17 months, does not really offer a clue. Mr. De Wever permanently tries to picture himself as a classic Belgian mayor, a kind of fatherly figure for all citizens. But he has had his polarizing moments too, especially when it came to issues of security, police and justice, where, in his attempts to lure the voters that once gave 35 % of the votes in Antwerp to the extreme right, he has not refrained from putting rhetoric oil on the fire in potentially violent conflicts.

So we will have to wait and see, should Mr. De Wever be the sole winner of the elections and should the new King, Philip the First, invest him with the reins of power. The huge electoral breakthrough of the Flemish nationalists in 2010, and especially the fact that Mr. De Wever then went a long way to stay out of the job of the prime minister of Belgium, seem to indicate that he might want to get rid of the long-time Belgian tradition of an elite forging complex compromises to keep the extreme diversity working. The price in that case will be the break-up of Belgium and years of political instability. As Belgian diversity has been ruled more or less in similar ways as the European one, this shift would no doubt be a testcase for the EU too.

But some hope that the nationalist leader will be more clever than that, surely when the Flemish Christian democrats, ever since 1830 the leading party in Flanders, would lose badly. In that case Mr. De Wever might simply want try to consolidate the position of his NVA as the biggest party in town. To achieve that he would then limit his nationalist credentials to something very much like the noisy nationalistic rhetorics and the Flag-and Lederhosen-symbolism of the Bavarian CSU, while steering the day-to-day  administration with the same pragmatism as the München elite. In that case, the tradition of pragmatic rule in Belgium would be upheld. But of course, up to now only mr. De Wever himself – the uncontested leader of his party, as the only NVA-politician scoring high in the popularity polls - can say exactly what he has in his mind

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Bis repetita placent?


One week before election day the polls in Belgium – often too cheap to be professional - have once again demonstrated how unreliably they are. The Friday evening television news-shows and the Saturday morning newspapers were full of scores going in all directions. The Flemish Christian democrats are the main victim: their results show a gap from 15 (in one poll) to 20 % (in another one) of the votes, which makes a difference between staying a large party and the risk of becoming irrelevant. Worst is the impression that the polls in at least some way reflect the preferences of the customer.

Nevertheless, some trends do not change. One is that the Flemish nationalists in Flanders are by far in the lead, with probably over 30 % of the votes and with some luck also – and not unlike the British fleet hundred years ago – twice as big as the main contender. This confirms what happened in the  tv-debates last weekend, when the leader of the nationalist NVA, Bart De Wever, talked the man who pretended to be his main challenger, the Christian democratic chief minister of the Flemish region Kris Peeters, into pieces.

The latter should now hope that its party can recuperate some of the general sympathy for the former Christian democratic and hugely popular prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene (73), who died suddenly on Thursday while travelling in Brittany and who will have a state funeral two days before election day. The other big trend in Flanders is the fragmentation of the left, with the social democratic SPA – and maybe also the union wing of the Christian democrats - losing heavily to the Greens and the former maoïst extreme left PVDA. The latter, although never represented in parliament in the past, has received a lot of exposure in the media, that are fond of  the strong rhetoric of its leader.

The situation in French-speaking part of Belgium is more complicated. Among the three million inhabitants of the Wallony-region, the socialist party (PS) will stay the largest with about 30 % (38 % in the elections of 2010). The liberals (MR) would obtain about 22 %, and two other parties, the greens and the christan democrats, a few percentages above 10. Almost certainly the formerly maoïst PTB (the same party as the PVDA in Flanders) will enter into parliament, with scores that waver between 6 and 9 %. A sixth party, the quite chaotic and extreme right Parti populaire, might also gain some seats (it had one in 2010).

Among the one million citizens of the (mainly French-speaking) city of Brussels, the liberals have a slight lead on the socialists, but both with results just above 20 %. The Brussels nationalists (FDF), the Greens and the Christian democrats compete for the third place. For a long time the French-speaking part of Belgium was the most stable, with only two parties needed to form a government (in Flanders it has been 3 or 4 since 1999) and the socialists clearly in the lead. Now it is struck as much as the north by fragmentation and instability.

Nevertheless last Monday the leader of the French-speaking socialists, Paul Magnette, the mayor of Wallony’s largest city Charleroi and half a year younger than De Wever, demonstrated his ability to match the Flemish nationalist leader in a passionate tv-debate with him that lasted more than an hour (picture). In the end Magnette won narrowly on points, because he continued to smile and joke whereas De Wever turned into bitterness. Under pressure, the latter accentuated his institutional agenda and neglected to elaborate on the economic reforms he and his party propose.

So it seems Belgium is heading for a scenario on the day after the elections that is quite similar to the one of 2010, when it took 540 days to form a new government. The unreliability of the polls is now the best hope that history will not repeat itself.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Never aspire to become prime minister?

After the Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever,  his main rival, the Flemish christian democrat Kris Peeters, has now also definitely ruled out that he wants to become the next prime minister of Belgium. This may well be the strongest symptom that Belgium is nearing a new big crisis.

In every democratic country governments are appointed through elections. In these elections groups of politicians who think more or less the same about societal issues, organise a party, write a program with proposals,  designate a leader they want to see taking up the reins of the next government. And if a party become the biggest group in the new parliament, it is their leader who becomes the new prime minister.

This key-rule of modern democracy is now under threat in Belgium. Already in 2010 Bart De Wever, the president of the Flemish nationalists,  after a few months gave up any attempt to become prime minister, although his party had won a surprisingly big electoral victory and suddenly had the largest group in parliament. This was, De Wever said, because king Albert II and the Belgian establishment did everything to prevent a Flemish nationalist of taking up command of the country.  But many saw this as a blunt refusal to take any role in the government of a country most people in his party would love to see  – at least in the long term – disappear.

The latter view seems now to have found new proof in a remark De Wever made on the 13th of April, before a Dutch audience in Amsterdam: ‘the worst that can happen to you in Belgium is to win elections. Or even worse: to become prime minister. The ‘16’ in the housenumber of the prime minister’s office (rue de la Loi 16 in Brussels,see picture rf) is about the percentage of votes you keep after you’ve held the office’.

Besides of being inexact – parties of the last five prime ministers in Belgium lost about 1 to 6 % of the votes when they were kicked-out after two terms, whereas in the Netherlands the loss for the last three amounted each time to 13 to 14 % - the remark confirms how De Wever has throughout the present campaign consistently refused to say that he wants to become the next prime minister. Opinion polls suggest that his party will by far be the largest in the next parliament.

 Now Kris Peeters, up to now the chief minister of Flanders region and the main candidate of the Christian democrats, has confirmed in an interview on Saturday (the 3th of May) that he wants to stay where he is and ‘under no condition will switch to the federal government’.  He too does not want to be prime minister of Belgium, not even when his party, one of the most traditional establishment parties of the country, will be victorious.

That makes two of a sort. In what the polls expect to be the hierarchy of political groups in parliament after the 25th of May, the first two parties in Flanders – nr.1 and nr. 4 in the whole of Belgium – refuse to propose a prime minister to lead the state they are campaigning in. That leaves the post almost certainly to a candidate of the French-speaking minority of the country. Probably the most remarkable thing about this is that nobody in the media or in the political class seems to bother.

The second biggest group in the federal parliament will probably be the Parti socialiste (PS) again, with the outgoing prime minister Elio di Rupo – who filled the leadership-vacuum left by De Wever in 2010 – as its main candidate. The third one are the French-speaking liberals (MR), where Didier Reynders, the minister of Foreign Affairs and deputy-prime minister for the last 15 years, is quite keen to make a promotion. But the latter is heavily contested in his own party and has many enemies all over the place. And the former could well be put aside in his own party, if – as the polls predict – the electorate in French-speaking Belgium reward his leadership of the country with a big defeat.

Seven years ago no less than five candidates contested the next prime ministership in Belgium. Nowadays more and more parties seem to consider that job as a political risk better not to take. The fact that not only the greatest of these parties, the Flemish nationalists, but also the second largest in Flanders, the very traditional Christian democrats who occupied the prime minister’s office for 40 out of the 70 years since 1944, say they are no longer interested, may well be a bad omen for what yet has to come.