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.







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