Belgium: time out of the political crisis

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 19, 2007

192 days after the federal elections, the Belgian federal politicians have finally agreed on a government. Yet it is not an ordinary government – rather, an emergency government which will only last for three months. The politicians prefer the term ‘interim government’, but that conceals the fact that the country is still faced with a political crisis. Guy Verhofstadt, who was the prime minister for the last 8 years, has managed to deblock the negotiations crisis and has managed in about two weeks time to form such an interim or emergency government. He will lead the emergency government which will only last for three months and will have two main agenda points. The government’s first task is to deal with some urgent socio-economic and political problems that require the presence of a government will full legal authority (including the authority to decide on the 2008 federal budget). Its second task is to pave the way for the next government which should be formed by the end of March 2008, by starting negotiations about the state reform between the different communities.

The emergency government will consist of the liberals and Christian Democrats at the Flemish side, and the liberals, Christian Democrats and socialist party at the Francophone side. The two small (and radical) parties that formed election-cartels and were part of the negotiations in the last half year – NVA at the Flemish side and FDF at the Francophone side – will not be part of this emergency government. And at the Francophone side the socialists (PS) and the Christian Democrats (CDH) were only willing to be part of this emergency government if they would both be part of it. The five parties together have more than two thirds of the parliamentary seats, which implies that, in theory at least, they have the qualified majority which is required to change the constitution, and this is needed for the state reform which the Flemish parties are asking.

All this is a rather remarkable development. If no unexpected surprises happen (and really, one never knows), Belgium will have a government on Sunday (the parties need to get approval from their members at congresses that are taking place in the next days). But even if Belgium will then have a government, none of the major political problems that form the fundaments of the current political crisis have been solved. So rather than celebrating that the political crisis has ended, it is probably more appropriate to say that there is a time out of the political crisis: the politicians have three months to get their act together, but then they will really have to decide what future they see for Belgium. I am rather pessimistic about the chances to have a viable and powerful government after March 2008. For despite that this government has a two third majority, two of its francophone members – PS and CDH – are strongly opposed to a state reform that transfers certain governmental responsibilities to the level of the communities, whereas the two Flemish parties, CD&V and VLD, believe that such a state reform is absolutely necessary for the socio-economic future of Belgium and have claimed that they do not want to be part of a government that does not commit to a state reform. They can now form a government because not a single word has been said about what one understands under the term ‘state reform’, and it could in principle also mean strenghtening the federal level. As soon as they will start filling in the blanks, their profound disagreements which led to the country being without government for 191 days will reemerge. Again, to be continued…

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Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » Three cheers for Belgium - sort of
12.20.07 at 7:05 am

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1

John Quiggin 12.19.07 at 8:52 pm

Maybe the comforts of office will lead the members of the government to compromise or paper over the issue when the 90 days come to an end.

2

P O'Neill 12.19.07 at 9:13 pm

On a slightly related note, how is it that the new Miss Belgium was able to win after having bombed on the Flemish question?

3

John Emerson 12.20.07 at 5:31 am

I’ll just float my question again: how relevant are any of the small nations any more?

Between international finance and its organizations (World Bank etc.), American military preponderance in a unipolar world, the EU, and the UN, nations don’t have much to do any more. Even in my childhood back in the 50s, Belgium often faced the world as part of the “Benelux countries”.

Even France, Britain, and Germany are uncertain about their role in the world these days. Belgium must be much more so.

For people I don’t know me, I should add that I am not at all happy with American preponderance or the IMF et al. But the international playing field does seem to have been changed.

I understand that the obsolescence of the nation-state is an old theme by now, and up until recently I’ve resisted it, but the fact that Belgium’s not having a government has caused so few problems seems like evidence for it.

4

John Quiggin 12.20.07 at 6:11 am

The EU is something of a special case here. Obviously, member states of a quasi-federation like this lose a fair bit of their significance.

As a counterexample, developments in Australia are if anything the opposite. The national government has expanded at the expense of the states that federated to form it, and the old imperial/commonwealth ties to the UK have withered to the point of insignificance. That’s been replaced by a client-state relationship with the US, but even this is probably more distant than 30 years ago.

5

GreatZamfir 12.20.07 at 9:07 am

John Emerson: I think you might be overestimating the importance of foreign politics to a country, especially a small one. The power of the US might change the view former powers like France or Britain have of themselves, but for smaller countries it is more a change in landscape. Whether your international politics is dominated by Germany or the US makes little difference to the importance of your government.

As for the long time ‘without’ government, I get the impression that people from countries without coalition govenment think too much of this point. Normal formations can already take up 70 days or so, and longer periods are not unheard of. The former Belgium record was, I think, 150 days and our Dutch record is 208 days. There is a good system in place that grants limited powers to the former government, that will simply keep doing its job. In the meantime, negotiations on issues beyond the limitations continue, so that when the new government is there, a range of pent up decisions can be made relatively quick.

Of course, such a system can’t last forever, and apparently Belgium was reaching the end of the possiblities under a limited government. But it has not spend the last 200 days without any government at all.

On top of all this, the richer small nations have little to do with the IMF or world bank, since they tend to be lenders to it, not borrowers. The EU is of couse a different matter, but at this moment it is, in my and most people’s opinion, far less powerful and influential than national governments.

6

des von bladet 12.20.07 at 1:02 pm

The idea that Belgium didn’t have a government is not a helpful one: in addition to the above points, Verhofstad’s outgoing government had the authority to deal with Outstanding Business, up to and including the negociations on the EU Reform (“Lisbon”) Treaty. To say nothing of the five(5) parliaments which were still firmly in place.

From my perspective, it looks as though Verhofstad, having lost the election, has comprehensively won the aftermath. Most delicious of all, he has put his enemy and the alleged winner of the election, Leterme, in charge of negociating a constitutional reform, as a “reward” for having failed (twice!) to form an executive.

Leterme has surely been set up to fail, and the best thing is that Verhofstad really couldn’t have arranged it otherwise. Whether even he will be able to pick up the pieces when Easter’s deadline comes and goes with no movement on the substantive questions is another matter, but at the moment he is way out in front of the Smoothest Benelux Politician Who Isn’t Jean-Claude Juncker Stakes.

(PS to Ingrid: Endless thanks for these updates – it is difficult to keep track of Belgian politics even from the Netherlands. One nano-nit: the conventional English spelling is “Christian Democrats”.)

7

Ingrid Robeyns 12.20.07 at 1:20 pm

Greatzamfir and Des von Bladet are absolutely right in pointing out that Belgium has not been entirely without a governement, but as Greatzamfir points out, even with the lower-level governments and the authority that Verhofstadt continued to had to deal with Outstanding Business, there were more and more economic and political actors expressing concern that some other business could not be dealt with – and for these matters a new ‘full’ federal government was necessary. The 2008 budget and the so-called ‘national security plan’ (an issue I’ve not been following) are often mentioned as examples of urgent problems which needed this new government.

Des, I actually hope I can stop with these updates soon (read: that the situation would turn back to ‘normal’), but all Belgian commentators that I’ve heard agree that nothing fundamental has been solved, so I expect we’re continuing with posts on Belgium in 2008….

8

Ingrid Robeyns 12.20.07 at 1:26 pm

PS: Des, thanks, I’ve corrected the spelling of Christian Democracts. I’ll try to remember it for the next Belgium-update ;-)

9

GreatZamfir 12.20.07 at 1:58 pm

des van bladet: I guess you’re right this isn’t hurting Verhofstadt, but I don’t really see how he could have actively steered the situation this way.

10

DRR 12.20.07 at 2:07 pm

Would it be easier if the country split in two?

11

franck 12.20.07 at 4:22 pm

I don’t really see what incentive the Flemings have to stay in Belgium beyond Brussels and habit.

The Walloons are both less productive and believe themselves to be culturally/morally superior to the Flemings. They also expect a leading role in the state and a privileged position for the French language (they don’t have to learn Dutch, but the Flemings have to learn French). What incentive is there for the Flemings to cooperate, beyond Wallonian threats to snatch part of Flanders and Brussels and attach them to Wallonia? There’s also no incentive for the Flemings to wait around as the French speakers exert left-over institutional and even in some cases illegal power to make Flanders more and more French-speaking.

I’m not optimistic about these negotiations so long as the parties don’t seem to understand each other’s grievances.

12

Akshay 12.20.07 at 9:42 pm

Franck@12: That expresses the Flemish POV. What are the other side’s grievances?

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