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.