Monday, 20 July 2020

Just like starting over

On Day 419 of Belgium’s agonizing search for a new federal government, suddenly there is what may be the beginning of a breakthrough. The two big boys take over, Paul Magnette from the Parti Socialiste and Bart De Wever from the Flemish nationalists. They formalized this to the outside world in a sober bow before king Philipp (both!) and distinct but coordinated video-messages on Twitter.


  The funeral bells for Belgium were already tolling when the last attempt to form a government, by three new presidents of three smaller parties bickering among themselves, turned into ridicule. Then last Monday the news came out that Paul Magnette had announced to his party bureau that he wanted to make a new attempt to form a government with the N-VA. The last time he tried, he was rebuffed by this party bureau, on 15 March this year. This time he seemed to get through, at least for the moment.


 The three presidents, who were trying to form a new government without the normal royal mission to do so – as there is indeed officially a functioning government with a parliamentary majority – on Sunday wisely concluded that their task had to be put on a hold. Then on Monday afternoon, a few astonishing events followed.


 It was learned that De Wever and Magnette were about to be received by the king at 16.30 at the Royal Palace in the heart of Brussels. This was just in time to have the cameras taking Magnette and De Wever together at their arrival, after which first the socialist party president, then the leader of the Flemish nationalists made a discreet bow when they met the king (picture VRT). Philipp asked both to pose with him before the cameras and then took them inside. After half an hour the Palace announced that the king had asked both ‘to take the necessary initiatives to form a government that can be supported by a large majority in the parliament’.


 Both then, clearly in a coordinated way, send out a video-message of about one minute, Magnette at 19.00, De Wever forty minutes later. Both stressed the need to take up responsibility in a moment of deep crisis, - ‘we are the sole country without urgent health plan and without an urgent recovery program’ Magnette said - even if negotiations will not be easy. De Wever said the PS had accepted to discuss institutional reforms, and that ‘this option should be explored’. Magnette said only the socialists were able to ‘save and strengthen the social security.’


 It afterwards came out that both parties have had some preliminary negotiations since about three weeks. Obviously promises were made to go for an institutional reform towards more devolution – as the N-VA wants and is obviously needed after the last election results – and for a solid program of social policies – which are now on the agenda in most European countries.


The main difficulty will inevitably be the budgetary policies and the repartition of federal money over the regions. But the spending spree everywhere in the world these days – one and a half kilometer from the Royal Palace European leaders were still discussing a recovery program with an unseen debt level for the EU – might make this task way more easier than only six months ago.


 A special element in this story is the new role of the king. Although the government of Sophie Wilmès is now still in charge and the role of the king is traditionally only to help in the search for a new one after elections or the resignation of the prime minister, the Palace seems to have wanted to take the reins into its hand again. It must have foreseen that this intervention would be explained as a clear royal support for the two biggest parties of the country to seek an understanding.

 There was no official timing announced, but Magnette in his message said there are exactly fifty days before prime minister Wilmes and her government – that is composed of three parties commanding only 38 of the 150 seats in the federal parliament – will face a vote of confidence early September. And that he will in these 50 days relentlessly work to have a new and solid government.


Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Fin de régime

The last and already slightly dubious attempt to form a Belgian government has slid into ridicule in recent days. The formation process itself now seems more and more limited to an attempt to cover the long summer break before reaching the obvious conclusion: that the formation of a new Belgian government is no longer possible, at least not within the political landscape that came out of the elections of 26 May 2019, now 407 days ago. The thirteen years old crisis in Belgium is nearing its moment of truth.


   It was Day 346 in 2010-2011, when Belgium was on its course to break the world record of the longest government formation in the world ever (in the end it doubled the record score held up to then by Iraq to 540 days): the Belgian king appointed Elio di Ripo, the final negotiator who was to become prime minister two hundred days later, to pick up his baton that was to lead him through his long and patient pilgrimage out of the political crisis (see our article in May 2011.)


 In the present crisis, after 407 days, we have not even reached that point. On the Ides of March this year, just when corona was rising, the Flemish nationalist N-VA and the Parti Socialiste, the two biggest parties of the country and both also the biggest in their respective region, failed to form a government to tackle the urgency. Since then two attempts have been made to form a new majority.


 They both took place in the informal margin of normal procedures, as, faute de mieux, almost all parties except the two extremes, agreed in March to promote the extremely minoritarian caretaking government of Sophie Wilmès into becoming the crisis manager. That small coalition did so with much good intentions, but also with a blatant lack of legitimacy and competence to steer the country with the stronger hand that was needed in such a crisis.


 The first formation attempt, started by the two socialist party presidents early in May, ended in an original proposal to try a minority government of the three traditional parties. It would seek support case by case with either the Flemish nationalists (rather seldom) or the greens (probably more frequently). The fact that both presidents offered this scenario to prime minister Wilmès with the request that she should execute it, was not a signal of overconfidence in its success. It ended with Wilmès turning it down.


 Then, in mid-June, the two liberal party presidents and the Flemish Christian democrat party president (all three new in their job) started an attempt to lure the Flemish socialist party president, a young rising star, into support for the former coalition formula of 2014-2018, with their parties and the Flemish nationalists of N-VA. Regardless of the fact that this would again be a government with the support of only one third of the French-speaking members in the federal parliament – except if the PS would join in a later phase – the attempt has been marred by incidents, blunders, internal bickering between the three and too much selfies hiding too futile content.


 Which leaves now an atmosphere of fin de régime (the image shows the arrest of Louis XVI on 22 June 1792 in the village of Varennes, a few miles from the border with the then Austrain 'pays belgiques' to which he was fleeing), op enkele tientallen kilometers wherein everybody dances his last waltz to avoid thinking about the bad events that begin to thunder outside. The bad conclusions, after fifteen months of failed attempts even to start formal negotiations, are these. A majority of French-speaking parties refuses any coalition with the Flemish nationalist N-VA, without which no viable stable majority in Flanders can be created. They do so because they consider the N-VA to be too much to the right and because they fear an eventual separatist agenda. The N-VA has formally always said it is ready to speak even with the French-speaking left (Greens and socialists) and seems after its defeat in 2019 cornered by the extreme right into avoiding a role in the opposition. But it may also play a subtle game of just not trying to be the savior of Belgium (which, by the way, from its not always so strongly voiced separatist point of view seems logic, but never expect everything to be logic in Belgian politics).


 In one word: there is simply no longer political room for a new Belgian federal government that would have a majority, however slightly, in both language groups of the country. And after the failed experiments with governments in minority support in one part of the country – especially the last one of Charles Michel – few or even no parties are willing to accept a role in a federal government without being part of a majority in their own language group.


 Journalists and pundits blame the short-sighted politicians, which is of course the most stupid argument to use in an already fragilized democracy. They forget – rather shortsightedly - about the election result of 26 May 2019, the most polarized ever in 190 years of Belgium’s democratic history (see our article in March ). New elections might therefore seem the best option to break the stalemate. But all (notoriously unreliable) polls in Belgium register a lot of frustration among the electorate, about the bad soap of the formation and about the many mishandlings of corona. They announce a radical strengthening of the already boosted extremes, again to the right in Flanders, again to the left in French-speaking Belgium.


 In a democracy the voters are always right, even when they are wrong. If the present stalemate continues, or if new elections strengthen the antagonism between the voter’s expectations in north and south, the federal government might just rot away until the point is reached that it seems better that the regions take over its competences. That is the slow march to de facto separatism. The latter is the elephant in the room, at the latest since Flemish nationalists and the extreme right – both in principle striving for an independent Flanders – obtained together 43,5 % of the Flemish votes in the elections of 2019. In Yugoslavia, after the death of dictator Tito in 1980, it took ten years (still as communist dictatorship, so surely far from wholly comparable) for the federal government to paralyse and finally decompose.


 Logic then says: why not take the bold step instead, write off Belgium in one stroke and start again with independent Flanders and the rest? After more than two hundred years of language strife and more than hundred years of growing antagonism, why not consume the divorce? It could at least break the infernal circle of antagonisms that constantly reinforce each other across a 57 years ago officialized language barrier. And thanks to the existence of the European Union, its participation in a common defence (Nato), its many common policies (including migration, most of the economics and environmental rules) and its euro, the threshold to change borders has significantly been lowered, even compared with only a quarter of a century ago.


 There is of course the almost miraculous example of the soft split of Czechoslovakia in 1992. It is not excluded that it could happen as smoothly in Belgium, but potholes are many all along the bumpy road. Even large number of politicians of the Flemish nationalist N-VA dither to advocate openly what is officially demand number one in their party program, as they are not sure the Flemish voter will follow.


 Separating Flanders from Belgium – with 6,6 million inhabitants (more than eleven EU-members) and an economy quite close to the German one – seems illusory simple (probably also in the mind of many Flemish voters). But what would remain of Belgium would face a considerable financial loss and would not be sure how to go on: as an independent country on its own, split-up in at least three parts (Brussels, Wallonia and tiny German-speaking Ostbelgien, that might opt for Germany), or choosing as a whole (or without Ostbelgien) to become part of France. It is not even improbable that part of Luxemburg province (200.000 inhabitants) might opt for the Grand Duchy. Besides, Belgian nationalism may never have been a strong emotion in the north (because of a long history of language-discrimination in the past), it surely is in the French-speaking part of the country.


 All this makes good stuff for irrational moves – surely in the knowledge that a rational separation like in Czechoslovokia would need, o irony, a dialogue between the two big parties, so PS and N-VA.  Such irrationality could strike against the background of a public debt that, due to the corona-crash, is going to rise above 120 % of gdp. Besides, taking into account the result of 2019, for the moment the minds in Flanders on independence seems at best split fifty-fifty, which puts it on the same road as Quebec in the last decades of the 20th century and Catalonia since 2009 towards an everlasting and maybe never fulfilled dream of independence that paralyses all other policies. Ask Oriol Junqueras, deputy chief minister of Catalonia when he was arrested on 2 November 2017, and now nearing his thousand days in prison.


 After exactly fifty years of devolution Flemish voters are no longer ready to applaud their Flemish regional government either. The big slogan of the beginning years – ‘what we do on our own, we do better’ – is no longer heard, and the big ambition of even moderate Christian democrats in those days – to develop administration practices that were nearing the efficiency of the Netherlands – has been abandoned. Flemish political and administrative culture has in a sense proven to be far more Belgian and Latin than the nationalists were ready to believe. One can indeed, if generalising is supposed to be useful, say that the Flemish are in their culture the most Latin of all European peoples that use a Germanic language, even more than that other nation with a long catholic past, Austria.


 All this does not bode well. The future of Belgium, more and more a worn-out country, looks grim. And the deeper economic shock of the corona-crisis still has to wash ashore into the hearts and minds. The autumn looks grey, grey, grey. It might turn black.