‘This week we want to land’. That was both ‘co-formateurs’ of a new Belgian government, Mr. Charles Michel and Mr. Kris Peeters, announced on Monday. But it remains unclear if they have, after weeks of hesitations, finally found the key to solve all personal issues, caused by an uprising inside Peeters’ party at the beginning of this month.
Negotiations for an unprecedented coalition of Flemish nationalists, French- and Flemish liberals and Flemish Christian democrats were well under way, so it seemed, in the first weeks after they had resumed in the middle of August. But then came Jean-Claude Juncker, the designated new leader of the European Commission (at the right of the picture).
Juncker not only pressed Belgium to appoint a candidate for his commission, he also asked explicitly for a woman, to whom he promised a big portfolio. That woman could only be Marianne Thyssen (left on the picture), since 21 years a Christian democratic MEP, and the only woman on the Belgian shortlist. But this collided with the intention of Charles Michel, co-formateur and president of the MR, the French-speaking liberals, to send Didier Reynders to the Commission.
Reynders has for fifteen years been a deputy prime minister of Belgium, but also a longtime rival of Charles Michel, and before that of his father Louis Michel (who went to the Commission between 2004 and 2009 after an election defeat and Reynders taking over the MR). So Michel said: either the Flemish Christian democrats, who are only the third largest party in the new coalition, obtain the prime minister – Kris Peeters – or the EU-commissioner, but not both.
On September the 1st inside the party bureau of the Flemish Christian Democrats (CDV) , a spontaneaous coalition was formed to support Thyssen, between the European lobby of the party (who is somehow orphan since its key figures in the EU Wilfried Martens and Jean-Luc Dehaene died recently, and because Herman Van Rompuy will retire in december), the Christian trade union, who dislikes the coalition that is to be formed, and maybe even the party president Wouter Beke in whom many see a potential successor for Peeters.
With that unexpected choice of the CDV, it needed a night long mediation by Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, who does not want to be prime ministers (which also would be difficult to defend against Francophone opinion for the MR) to keep the negotiations on track. Indeed, suddenly Kris Peeters saw his chances to become prime minister destroyed, Didier Reynders saw his way to the Commission closed (and reacted somewhat bitterly), and Charles Michel was confronted with the perspective of having to share power in Belgium with Reynders.
At 9 am on Thursday the 4th of September after twenty hours of non-stop negotiations Michel and Peeters announced that Thyssen would become Commissioner and the next prime minister would be ‘a liberal’. The vagueness of the latter announcement showed that further compromises still had to be worked out.
Since then the negotiations have stalled. For the last fortnight before Monday there was not even a plenary session of all negotiating teams. For all observers it was clear that the key to unlock the stagnation laid inside the MR. Charles Michel is the obvious candidate to become prime minister, but he wants to be freed from Reynders in his backyard. The latter has already let it know that he wants to succeed Michel as party president. Of course every international topjob for Reynders – who is 56 - could solve the rivalry, but these are not so readily available.
Other elements have destabilised the negotiations too. The future of the second formateur, Kris Peeters, is all but clear. His party has in the past few weeks put forward some strong demands for new taxes emanating from the Christian trade union. It hopes to find allies inside the MR against the more right wing oriented Flemish nationalists and liberals.
So the optimism that the two co-formateurs showed on Monday, with all negotiators agains around one table since Sunday afternoon, was met with scepticism. Would Michel take the risk to go for prime ministership and confront Reynders in a vote on his presidency some weeks later? Is there a solution for Kris Peeters? Only in that case, it seems, the final decisions on thorny issues like the pension age, wage restraint and cutting the budget deficit – decisions that have been carefully prepared by experts and need only an ultimate arbitration – will finally be made.