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.