Friday, 6 June 2014

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.

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