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….


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