Sunday, 29 June 2014

Battle of wills



The new ‘informateur’ to form a federal government, Mr. Charles Michel, will see Mr. Bart De Wever, the Flemish nationalist leader, on Monday morning, after he had a 90 minutes long talk with Elio di Rupo, the outgoing prime minister and leader of the French-speaking socialists (PS), on Saturday (picture). Mr. Michel, who received the vaguely defined mission to ‘explore possible formula’s to form a government’, seems to want to take his time.
Mr. Charles Michel is 38, leader of the French-speaking liberals (MR), mayor of the small town of Wavre to the south of Brussels, and son of the former European Commissioner Louis Michel. King Philip appointed him as new ‘informateur’ on Friday noon, after the resignation of Mr. Bart De Wever on Wednesday. Contrary to his father Albert – who in previous crises showed creativity in finding new names for each mission to form a government (pre-informateur, eclaireur, conciliateur ..) – the new King Philip seems to stick to the classic terminology of ‘informateur’ and ‘formateur’.
After seeing the unions and the business associations, Mr. Michel had a long talk with Mr. Elio di Rupo on Saturday. The ‘informateur’ insisted  that this was a consultation of the outgoing prime minister. The president of the Parti Socialiste, the same Mr. di Rupo, he will consult on Monday, after having seen the leader of the largest party in the new parliament, Mr. De Wever. Relations between Michel and di Rupo have been tense since the latter excluded the former from the negotiations for regional governments in early June.
Very few has been heard the last weeks about the attempts to form the regional governments. Most observers nevertheless expect some final rounds of negotiations towards the end of the week, or early next week. In Flanders NVA and CDV are negotiating, in Wallonia PS and CDH and in Brussels PS, CDH and FDF, together with the smaller Flemish parties (liberals, socialists and Christian democrats).
The next federal government remains a big question mark. All formula’s seem to lie on the table, and Mr. Michel is clearly taking his time. After the failure of Mr. De Wever to form a centre-right government of his own party, the two Christian democratic parties and the MR, a cooling off period seems indeed necessary. The French-speaking liberals, who are centre-right in mostly centre-left Wallonia, are well-positioned to keep on speaking terms with everybody.
But the big issue remains the veto the biggest party in each community is putting up against the other one. Spokesman of PS, CDH and FDF repeated on Sunday they would not enter a government with the Flemish nationalists of NVA. The latter on the other hand has been trying to form explicitly a government without the PS. And all the smaller parties are under pressure from the leading one in their community  not to ‘betray the interests of their community’.
It could take a long time – or even eternity – before the logic conclusion that the two dominant parties are doomed to rule the country together, will be reached.  

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The end of Belgiums consensus-policies

 While the national football team of Belgium has reached the second round of the World Cup for the first time since 2002, amidst a national frenzy  never seen before, the formation of a national Belgium government has again become a highly challenging matter. Mr. Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists and winner of the parliamentary elections of the 25th of May, is about to hand over his resignation to king Philip today, as he has failed in his task to lay the groundwork for the formation of a new government.
 De Wevers party, the NVA, gained six seats in the federal parliament in last elections, whereas the second best winner, the communist PTB, won two. The latter seats were lost by the Parti Socialiste (PS), the biggest party in French-speaking Belgium, led by the outgoing prime minister Elio di Rupo. It now has 24 MP’s, whereas De Wever has 33. Di Rupo’s party is the only one of the six in the outgoing government that lost seats. The two liberals parties and the Flemish Christian democrats gained one each.
Having been charged with ‘informing’ the King about the prospects for a new government on the 27th of May, the nationalist leader has been working on a centre-right coalition since then. He wanted, in his own words before the election, make a government without the socialists for the first time in 25 years. To do so he needed to lure the French-speaking liberals and Christian democrats into talks. Although it is no legal obligation nor a fix tradition to have a majority in each language group, both parties together have only 28 of the 63 seats for French-speaking parties.
  But the PS, still the biggest party in both the Brussels and Wallonia regions, and with Mr. di Rupo in front, announced on the 5th of June that it would immediately form a ‘progressive’ coalition with the French-speaking Christian democrats (CDH) in both regional governments. Since then, and especially in the last week,  it is obvious that the PS was pressing the CDH to stay out of Mr. De Wevers would-be federal government. Today the Christian democrats, regardless of the lobbying of their Flemish counterparts, complied, when their president, Benoit Lutgen, announced live in the evening newsshow of RTL that ‘there is no confidence’ between him and Mr. De Wever. The latter now will have to hand in his resignation.
The key to understand these developments is that with the announcement of the 5th of June, Mr. di Rupo gave priority to the regional governments over the federal one. Although this move was probably done because of the electoral defeat of the party, it is nevertheless logic. Regional coalitions need two or three parties at most to agree, whereas on the federal level federal it takes at least four (and usually more) parties to obtain a stable government. And as the electoral landscape in the north of the country differs strongly from that in the south, it is not so easy to obtain the same coalition in the federal and all regional governments.
The paradoxes in this new development since early June are manifold. In the institutional reforms of the previous government of Mr. di Rupo, regional and national elections were put on the same day again, to have less elections with national impact – now on average every two years – and to make the same coalition on all levels possible. The political pipedream was that with at least four years without an election until the local polls at the end of 2018, and with similar coalitions everywhere, the country would at last be able to make some urgent social and economic reforms.
 Mr. De Wever, in opposition before the elections, heavily denounced this as an attempt to cut the wings of the regional governments, especially the Flemish one. He announced that the first thing he would do after victory was to form a centre-right coalition in Flanders region to influence the formation of the federal government. For this he was denounced by the PS as a separatist. After the elections both Mr. De Wever and Mr. di Rupo have made a complete turnaround. Lured into federal responsibilities by the king and his Flemish Christian democrat friends, Mr. De Wever forgot about his threat, whereas Mr. di Rupo, beleaguered by the forces of defeat, put it into practice.
Mr. Paul Magnette, the acting president of the PS as long as Mr. di Rupo is prime minister, last week proposed to give up the idea that regional and federal elections should be held on the same day. Again this is both a logic conclusion of the latest events, and totally the opposite of what he and his party defended before the elections. Such a reform is quite feasible in the next years, but would probably be the first step towards a new round of institutional reforms that everybody before the elections – except for the NVA – wanted to avoid.
 Regardless of the bitter emotions these betrayals have instigated, they point to the same unmistakable fact: both the PS and the NVA use their leading position in each of the two communities in Belgium as a stronghold from which they (might) start their conquest of the federal government. And keep the other one out: in this first phase of probably long negotiations, Mr. De Wever has put a veto in all but name on a federal coalition with the PS. In an interview last Thursday Mr. di Rupo did the same, by saying that no decent party of the French-speaking part of Belgium can enter into a coalition with the separatists of the NVA.
The federal government has become a battlefield of nationalist perceptions: if it will be centre-left, this will be perceived as a defeat for Flanders; if it turns centre-right, it will be pictured as bad for French-speaking Belgium. Such is the cleavage between the global electorates in the north and the south of the country – Mr. De Wever talks of ‘conflicting democracies inside one country’ – that most of the possible coalitions in the federal government could be perceived as the defeat of one community.
Could a new coalition of the three traditional parties, like in the outgoing government, be presented as the moderate centre, neither left nor right? Probably not anymore. Mr. De Wever build his latest electoral victory in Flanders on precisely the image that this government was too leftist and going against the interests of Flanders. After his blatant failure to lure French-speaking parties into a federal government, he will make this point stronger than ever. As for the PS, it is, after its losses against the extreme left, probably no longer prepared to make the same concessions to some centre-right wishes of the Flemish electorate as Mr. di Rupo did in his first term.
In the Netherlands in 2012 the strongest opponents – the liberals and the socialists – also won the elections by polarising the electorate. They decided almost on the evening of the elections to be pragmatic and to build a coalition of  both, as there was no alternative. Due to the nationalistic polarisation inside Belgium, which adds to the one between left and right, this is far less evident. But even if NVA and PS would find a compromise, it would probably be built on very limited ambitions.
Obviously the most logic solution for every neutral observer is that, when you have such different electorates and parties in each part of the country and they are no longer capable of making compromises with each other after elections, due to the pressure of voters and media, then you have to decentralise the country as far as is thinkable. Almost as far as Switzerland, leaving to the centre only the competence on which everybody agrees that they cannot be assigned to the lower government levels.  The problem with this scenario is that French-speaking Belgium refuses it.
Due to the long economic decline of Wallonia in the second half of the 20th century, the south of Belgium still has  a long way to go before it can on its own produce the level of prosperity of the north. Up to now it can, via the federal government, tap into the economic benefits of Flanders to pay, among other things, a generous and large unemployment bill and the cost of a quite a generous social security in general.
But for Flanders, that has run into economic troubles itself since about a decade, it is less and less acceptable to be refused a centre-right government that could lower the record tax rates, temper the still fast rising costs of social security or reduce the surplus in average wage cost in industry compared to the neighbouring countries.  Saying no to the winner of the elections, to centre-right (after 25 years of centre-left) and to further devolution at the same time, is probably the shortest way to make separatism in Flanders the most reasonable alternative. Implicitly, already a third of the electorate is in favour. That is already a huge number to keep stability in a country structure.
 In the end the impossibility to bring on a new federal government might generate creative solutions. In the nineteen eighties, the first regional governments were coalitions that reflected the proportional division of power between the parties in the regional parliaments. If this should be applied today to the federal government (always composed of seven Flemish and seven French-speaking ministers) you would have a coalition of the three traditional parties in both communities, with the NVA. The latter would also deliver the prime minister. Such stabilising and face-saving scenarios are not unthinkable, but they show as much that the normal democratic process in the formation of a Belgian government is deeply disturbed.
For the moment Belgium seems again on its way to a record-breaking long negotiation for a new government, with a new institutional imbroglio is in the cards. The idea that the next four years could at last be the big opportunity to pursue much-need reforms in the country is now indeed only a pipedream. On the contrary, the growing political complexities of this small and often successful country, are now rapidly weakening it, with the ghost of separatism closing in fast.

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.







Friday, 6 June 2014

The remains of a nation

One day after Wallonia and Brussels, Mr. Bart De Wever, still the federal 'informateur', announced that the Flemish nationalists and Flemish christian democrats would try to form a new regional government in Flanders. It is now most likely that it will be the regional coalitions that will form a federal government later. The devolution process in Belgium has made a new big leap forward.

At a new conference at 5 pm and after a night of negotiations Mr. De Wever (picture, in the middle) and the outgoing chief-minister of the Flemish region, Mr. Kris Peeters (picture, right) announced that their respective parties, NVA and CDV, would try to form the new regional government in the next few weeks. Like in the south of the country, it is mostly the outgoing coalition that is continued, albeit in Flanders without the socialdemocratic SPA.

Ms. Gwendolyn Rutten, the president of the Flemish liberal VLD - who will remain in opposition on the regional level as they are since 2009 - immediately suggested that her party in that case will no longer be interested to be a part of the next federal government. Rutten had advocated strong cooperation between the different levels during the election campaign.

But as in Wallonia, and certainly after the events of Thursday, the democratic logic pointed to a coalition of the two largest parties in Flanders. The democratic impuls of the regional elections has proved to be stronger than the political intention to soften the big electoral differences in the north and the south by imposing the same coalitions on all levels. The latter was a major feature of the last institutional reform of 2013.

In a sense the next federal government will now most probably be made to the image of the regional governments, bringing together a centre-right coalition in Flanders and a centre left in Wallonia. It is doubtful such a coalition could concentrate on much needed economic reforms in the next five years.

If anything, the events of the last days have shown that a new institutional reform is inevitable, as the process of devolution has in practice gone far faster than many expected. Mr. De Wever will report on his attempts to form a new federal government at the Royal Palace on Tuesday. It is far from sure that he will be able to detect by then a clearcut way to continue for king Philipp.

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.