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 …