A government-funded escape

5 02 2009

On September the 4th 2007, a 14 year old boy was stabbed with a knife in front of his school in Ghent. The artery in his neck was severed and he remained in a coma for almost a week. His attackers turned out to be 2 of his schoolmates. They were brothers, 15 and 16 years old, from an Ukrainian family that was applying for asylum in Belgium.

Investigations in Belgium can drag on for years and the two brothers are still awaiting their trial. In the meantime however, the office for foreigners rejected the asylum application of the family and asked them to leave the country, which they did, with their sons, who were free on probation. As always when illegal immigrants leave voluntary, the office for foreigners payed for their flight and gave them a €250 bonus per adult.

This is Belgium: the country where criminals are paid to escape the country before their trial…

The Attorney general of Ghent admits that the office for foreigners was not informed about the investigation against the 2 brothers. “We can’t inform the office for foreigners about all investigations against foreigners. There are simply too many of them” the Attorney general says. The office for foreigners says they can’t warn all 27 Attorney generals each time they are about to put someone on a plain. And so nobody talks  and criminals escape unpunished.


Fortis fun

3 10 2008
Here today. Where tomorrow? (original)

Here today. Where tomorrow? (original)

The Belgian-Dutch bank Fortis was running a large advertising campaign since June. The image of a little guy walking on a curve was accompanied by the slogans “Life is a curve. Where are you on it?” and “Here today. Where tomorrow?”.

Live is a curve. (original)

Live is a curve. (original)

But this week, Fortis decided to put the campaign on hold. The reason for this decision is the large amount of parodies that are circulating on the internet, inspired by the difficult financial situation Fortis is in. These parodies have slogans like “Here today. Gone tomorrow?” and images that look a bit like a diagram of the Fortis stock price…

Life is a curve (parody)

Life is a curve (parody)

We might need them after all

2 10 2008

Yes, we still have a government. When the N-VA decided they would no longer support the federal government, the party of prime minister Yves Leterme had to choose between it’s alliance with N-VA and the government. They choose to remain in power, saying they didn’t really have a choice. If they left the government, they claimed the country would plunge into chaos.

The Francophone press was pleased with the ending of the alliance between CD&V and N-VA. “Champagne and trumpets” was the title of the editorial piece in La Libre. The contrast with the tone in the Flemish press couldn’t be bigger. The title in De Standaard was “CD&V lost everything”. But CD&V managed to convince it’s members and to get their support during a party congress last Sunday.

Convincing their voters might be more difficult, though. Opinion polls show CD&V lost 40% of it’s votes when the alliance broke up. But maybe the global financial crisis can help CD&V to counter this trend.

For the first time in months, our government seems actually to be doing something else than squabbling. Two Belgian banks were endangered by the financial crisis, but the government seems to have saved them. Fortis was partially nationalized by the Dutch, Luxembourg and Belgian governments on Monday. On Tuesday, the French and Belgian governments did the same with Dexia. So maybe this crisis could actually be a blessing for Yves Leterme and his government. It provides them with an opportunity to actually do something at a time when, after 15 months of inactive governments, people started to wonder what they needed a government for.

A Royal visit

21 09 2008

It’s a beautiful, sunny autum day in the city of Ghent. More than 150 000 people are expected today to watch a historical procession. One of the spectators will be our king: Albert II. An interresting coincidens because while the performers are putting on their costumes, a few meters away in an adjacent building the political party N-VA is holding its congress, that is very likely to mean the end of the Belgian government. This means the political crisis that is dragging on for 15 months now, is still far from over. While the king sees the procession passing by with old kings, emperors and long forgotten gods, I wonder if he will think about his own fate. Will he be able to prevent his kingdom from crumbling?

King Albert II

King Albert II

After the elections in June 2007, it took 6 months to form an interim government. In March 2008, the real government took over. But when that government failed to reach an agreement about the reform of the Belgian federal state, our Prime minister Yves Leterme offered his resignation to the king last July. The king refused to accept this resignation and appointed 3 negotiators who had to get all governing parties around the table again.

Those 3 wise men, as the press called them, presented their report last Wednesday. The negotiations had to start whit a “blank sheet of paper”, without taboos or conditions. Dutch and French-speaking politicians could each send a delegation of 6 negotiators. The talks would have to start when “the time is right”. Each language group has to appoint its own negotiators and those negotiators would have to agree on what topics would be discussed and when the talks were to be held. So basically, after 15 months of negotiations all we have is a blank sheet of paper.

The elections of 2007 were won in Flanders by an alliance between the Flemish Christian-democratic party CD&V, and the Flemish nationalist party N-VA. They promised they wouldn’t join a federal government for as long as an agreement about the reform of the state had not been reached. 15 months later, all they have to show their electorate is a blank sheet of paper. With regional and European elections coming up in June 2009, that’s not a very comfortable situation to be in. So when the N-VA declared today that they would no longer support the Belgian government, that hardly came as  a surprise.  The government is now no longer supported by a majority of the Flemish MP’s. Theoretically, that shouldn’t be a problem. The government still has the support of an overwhelming majority of the Francophone MP’s. But it is highly unlikely that the CD&V will remain in a government that will be seen as an “anti-Flemish government” by the Flemish opposition.

Next week, the CD&V will hold a congress. Right now, the situation changes every minute and no one can now for sure what will happen, be it looks like the CD&V will decide there that they will leave the federal government.

The Castle of the Count in Ghent

The Castle of the Count in Ghent

So what will happen next? New elections would seem a logical decision, but they are not likely to change anything. Elections now, would mean new negotiations while the campaign for the regional elections will be in full swing. That’s not going to make it easier. Moreover, opinion polls suggest that most voters didn’t change their minds and would vote for the same party as last year. New elections would also be contested in court, after the constitutional court deemed the current electoral law unconstitutional. But what is the alternative? Letting the current stale mate linger on until the regional elections in June, doesn’t really sound like a better scenario. In the mean time, both the regional governments and the European institutions keep doing their jobs and  consequences of this crisis for the daily life of the Belgians seem to be fairly limited. So all the Belgian government seems to be doing, is proving their own irrelevance.

The king has a lot on his mind these days. But today is no day for worries. He might as well enjoy visiting his kingdom, for as long as he still has one.

Show me the money

11 09 2008

Last February, the Belgian federal government asked the regions and communities for help. We had an interim government then, formed because after 6 months of negotiations, politicians still didn’t succeed in creating a real government. The purpose of this interim government was to create a budget and to run the country while the negotiations about a real government and about the reform of the state continued. This interim government was in desperate need of cash and hoped the regions and communities would be willing to help.

The Belgian regions and communities depend financially on an allowance they receive from the federal government. The idea was for the regional governments to spend only a part of this allowance. The money they would put aside, could then be booked by the federal government as “not yet spent”, which would make it’s budget seem more balanced.

The Brussels region agreed for 30 million Euro. The French community would set aside 60 million and the Walloon region 30 million. The Flemish government (that combines the government of the Flemish region and that of the Flemish community) hesitated. They feared that if they helped to save the federal budget, they would take away all pressure from the negotiations about the reform of the state. But eventually, they agreed to set aside 400 million Euro, on condition that an agreement on the reform of the state would be reached by July the 15th.

So it seemed at the time the federal budget might have been saved. And with an agreement about the timing for the negotiations on the reform of the state, a “real” government could be sworn in on March the 20th. Some optimists might have thought the worst was over.

But it wasn’t. Brussels backed out because they desperately needed the money themselves. And because the government failed again to reach an agreement about the reform of the state by July the 15th, brand new prime minister Yves Leterme offered his resignation to the king. His resignation was declined and the government is still in place, but it’s budget is 400 million Euro short, because the Flemish government will now no longer set aside that money.

Melchior Wathelet in La Libre Belgique

Melchior Wathelet in La Libre Belgique

The Secretary of the Budget: Melchior Wathelet, is clearly not Happy with that. In an interview that appeared in La Libre Belgique today, he said he was “surprised” to hear the Flemish government might spend the money. “If an entity doesn’t honour it’s agreements, we don’t have to compensate for that. They are responsible for this deficit.” he says. That the agreement was conditional to begin with, seems to have completely slipped his mind.

Michel Daerden in Le Soir

Michel Daerden in Le Soir

The newspaper Le Soir publishes an interview with Michel Daerden: Vice-President of both the French community and the Walloon region. About the federal budget he says he’ll keep his word: “We agreed to contribute 90 million Euro to the federal budget. We’ll do that.” But he also says a new federal state Walloon-Brussels, without Flanders, might be the future. “It’s clear: the day we no longer have a federal income tax is the day we no longer have a country”. Discussing fiscal autonomy for the regions is unacceptable to him: “If we start discussing situations in which there is a minimum tax at the federal level and the regions get to decide the rest, we are no longer in the Belgian model. If that’s where we are heading, we might as well abolish the whole model.” This seems like he admits what many Flemings already suspected: he is only interested in Belgium as long as his region can profit from it financially. But it also makes clear what it is that keeps Belgium together: Brussels. The city is claimed by both Flemings and Francophones. If Belgium ceases to exist, at least one of these two language groups will have to let Brussels go.

A walk at the front line

9 09 2008

I once heard someone who works in the tourism industry say that some tourists are afraid to come to Belgium, because they think a civil war is about to break out here. Last Sunday I went to the battlefield, to see how bad things actually are. This is my dispatch from the place in Belgium where political tensions run at their highest: the Flemish towns around Brussels.

The 3 Belgian regions

The 3 Belgian regions

Brussels is a bilingual isle, surrounded by monolingual Flemish towns. At least, that’s the theory. (the concept of “facilities” makes it slightly more complicated. I’ll write about that later) As Brussels grew bigger, more and more French-speaking Belgians decided to move to the Flemish towns, resulting in rising house prices. Consequently, many young Flemish families could no longer afford living in the town they grew up in. This further strengthened the effects of what Flemings call the frenchification. Some Flemish towns around Brussels now have more French-speaking inhabitants than Dutch-speaking ones.

That would all be fine if Francophones who move to Flanders learned Dutch to speak with their neighbours and in their contacts with the local government. But many of them don’t. Instead, some of them complain about discrimination and demand to be served in French. Some even demand the transfer of Flemish towns to the Brussels region.

Once a year, on the first Sunday of September, tens of thousands of Flemings gather in these border towns for an event called the “Gordel”. It is the largest annual sports event in Flanders. The participants explore the beautiful Flemish countryside around Brussels by bike or on foot. The Gordel organisers call it “the funnest day of the year” and try to fulfill this promise with all kinds of activities for children along the hiking routes and with concerts in the 5 towns where the routes end.There are no political speeches at the Gordel and you won’t find political symbols on their website. It is first and foremost a family sports event, but one with a clear political message. The goal of the event is to strengthen the ties between the towns around Brussels and the rest of Flanders. Many participants carry Flemish flags or wear stickers and every year groups of politicians (including ministers and mayors) participate wearing T-shirts with slogans demanding the electoral district of BHV to be split up.

The political message makes this event slightly more adventurous than the average cycling or hiking tour. Sabotage by political opponents has become part of the Gordel tradition. The organisers run a call center where incidents can be reported and have special anti-sabotage teams who are ready to replace vandalized signposts or to clean up nails that have been scattered along the cycling routes.

But this years Gordel promised to be even more adventurous. The French-speaking acting mayors of 3 Flemish towns, said they would not give the Gordel permission to pass trough their territory, unless the organisers would clearly state that political symbols were not welcome. They claimed they could not guarantee public safety if participants in the Gordel would carry political messages.

the funnest Sunday

The Gordel: the funnest Sunday

The organisers of the Gordel refused to comply and the governor of the province of Flemish Brabant said that if the acting mayors failed to do so, he would take all necessary measures to allow the Gordel to proceed as planed. Eventually, the acting mayors backed down a little. Participants who simply walked by would be left alone, but anyone who would stop to stage a political demo, would be arrested.

It was a cold and rainy day last Sunday. Not a very good day to walk around in the countryside, but an excellent day to spend in jail. So some small groups of protesters gathered with their Flemish flags in front of the town hall of Linkebeek: the town of one of the acting mayors who announced demonstrators would be arrested. They were accompanied by hordes of press, even some foreign journalists where eagerly awaiting the battle between the police and the demonstrators. But they were disappointed. Acting mayor Damien Thiéry came out to greet the demonstrators. They shook hands and had a little chat. Then, the demonstrators continued their hike through the rain. The police didn’t intervene.

This is how wars are fought today in Belgium: with strong words and some nails. Despite the rain, the sabotage and the political tensions, 58 049 Flemings enjoyed a day in the towns, woods and fields around Brussels. So if you are planning a trip to Europe, there is no reason to miss out on our beautiful historical cities. You won’t need a bullet proof jacket. But don’t forget your raincoat.

And in case you wonder why there are so many acting mayors in the towns around Brussels: stay tuned. That’s a story for another post.

Hoisting the flag

4 09 2008

Belgian flag at Lennik town hall” was the title of a small article in my newspaper last August the 18th. Similar articles appeared the 17th and 27th of August. Why would a newspaper care to mention that a Belgian town displays a Belgian flag at it’s town hall? Because at the Flemish national holiday on July the 11th, Willy De Waele, the mayor of Lennik, decided no longer to fly the Belgian flag.

Willy De Waele during a political meeting in June 2007

Willy De Waele during a political meeting in June 2007

Mr. De Waele no longer believes in Belgium. Belgium is in total chaos he says. More than a year has passed since last elections. During those elections, all Flemish political parties promised that they would reform the Belgian state and transfer more power to the regions. But the Francophone political parties don’t want reform. The negotiations are still going on, but all hope for a positive outcome seems to have been lost, and more and more politicians call for new elections.

There is one tiny little problem with those new elections: they would be unconstitutional. In 2003, the Belgian constitutional court declared that the voting district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) is in violation with the constitution. Politicians were given some time to resolve this, but the deadline expired and no solution has been found that both Flemings en Francophones could agree upon.

There is only one way out of this mess, according to Mr. De Waele: transferring almost all power to the regions and transform Belgium into a confederation. Until that happens, he refuses to fly the Belgian flag.

Flemish Flag

A Flemish Flag at the castle of the count in Ghent

It took the press until the 13th of August to find out that the Belgian flag was gone in Lennik. But since then, the controversy never stopped. It started quite innocently, with people trying to replace the Flemish flag with a Belgian one at night. Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they got caught. But then it became more and more aggressive. Swastikas were painted on street signs and Mr. De Waele received hate mail and death threads. One of his colleagues: Jean-Jacques Flahaux, mayor of the Walloon town of Braine-le-Comte, wrote “after the war, this kind of behaviour was rightfully punished with a bulled between the eyes“.

But while that might have been the case during the repression after the second worldwar, it seems that Mr. De Waele isn’t breaking any laws today. Apparently, flying a Belgian flag on a town hall, is only required by law on national holidays. All the other days of the year, Mr. De Waele can continue with his protest against the current political stalemate.