15 months of Belgian political mess

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 22, 2008

In July I couldn’t blog about a major episode in the Belgian political crisis – I was on holidays in the Walloon area of Belgium, in a cottage without electricity, and without access to the web. Today there is another sequel in the Belgian political crisis which has now been going on for about 15 months. By now most Belgians are suffering from political depression: they are no longer able to swallow yet another glass of this soap. Yet if anybody out there is still interested (I am, even if also politically slightly depressed), below the fold is a short summary of the last two episodes of the Belgian crisis. Warning: this post requires some knowledge on the Belgian political labyrinth, which I’ve tried to sketch here

So first the crisis in July. When last March the prime minister, Yves Leterme, formed a government there was an explicit goal to have an agreement on how and when to discuss the state reform which the Flemish parties demanded, including the much contested problem of the electoral district Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. The Flemish Cartel party CD&V/NVA did not request a an agreement on a state reform (that would be just plainly impossible in only three months), but they requested that the government would come up with a plan on how to conduct such a state reform by July 15. That was their condition for supporting this government.

On July 14, it became clear that there wouldn’t be an agreement between all the coalition parties involved. So Yves Leterme went to the King and offered the resignation of his government. The King did not accept. The King did not reject. Instead, the King consulted everybody who could bring him some ideas on how to solve this issue. Since many commentators felt that the repeated francophone ‘non’ to Leterme’s proposals largely contributed (some would say: caused) his failure to come up with an agreement, they urged that now it was time for the francophone Belgians to take the lead in solving the crisis. After a few days, the King refused Leterme’s resignation (which is a very unusual thing to do), and appointed two francophone and one German-speaking Belgians to come up with a proposal on how to get Belgium out of this crisis.

The Royal mediators eventually formulated a vague proposal last week. This led to the second crisis. The Flemish government, except for the NVA (the small Flemish-nationalist party), is in favour of a dialogue from community to community, whereby each community would be able to form their own delegation. Yet since the NVA no long believes that this dialogue between francophones and Flemish is going anywhere, they no longer support their cartel partner CD&V, Yves Leterme’s Party. After four and a half year, the Cartel between the large Christian-democratic party CD&V and the small Flemish nationalist party NVA, which attracted most Flemish votes, has been broken. At least, that’s how it looks like today; who knows what tomorrow brings in the Kingdom of Surrealism.

One of the problems that made the formation of a government so difficult after the elections in 2007 was the fact that there are regional elections in 2009, and that the dynamics of coalition formation at the regional and the national level are interfering. It now looks like they are trying to keep this federal government going until 2009; if the Federal government then falls, the two elections will coincide, and one more dangerous ingredient from the Belgian explosive cocktail will be neutralised. But at what price: a country without a decent federal government for 15 months now, and not really much closer (according to some, not even a single step closer) to the state reform which all Flemish parties think is needed to make the economy more vibrant and the state more efficient—the only way, they believe, to safe the generous Belgian welfare state which will have to deal with the increasing burdens of the costs of an ageing population. That safeguarding the generous welfare state was one of the issues at stake in this quest for a state reform surely must have been forgotten by now by many Belgian voters. They just see a bunch of politicians performing in what looks like a soap.

{ 9 comments }

1

stostosto 09.22.08 at 10:49 pm

Thanks for the update, Ingrid.

2

Dan Simon 09.23.08 at 12:41 am

15 months–feh. Canada’s constitutional “crisis” dragged on for decades, eventually receded, and now seems like an episode from ancient history. If 15 months of this nonsense is enough to sink you Belgians into a depression, you’ve got much more to worry about than political deadlock. Perhaps a couple of bracing Canadian winters is what you need, to toughen you up…

3

John Quiggin 09.23.08 at 8:22 am

Thanks for this, Ingrid. Some possibly naive questions:

In your earlier post you indicated that around half of Flemish Belgians wanted to split the country up. Has that changed, and if so in what direction? Do francophones still oppose a split? And how would things change if it became apparent that Brussels would be part of the francophone section in any split ?

4

Lex 09.23.08 at 8:33 am

As far as I can see, the only good reason for not splitting the country up is the welfare-state liabilities issue. Much like a family that all hates each other, but has to live in the same house to keep claiming from the trust-fund…

5

Ingrid Robeyns 09.23.08 at 10:27 am

John,
I haven’t followed the news as closely as I should, so I haven’t heard about any new polls re: seperation. In July I was lucky enough to be able to read lots of francophone press, and there was then (and most likely still is) strong resistance against the idea of seperation; that is also the reason why the francophone politicians are not keen at all on the state reform talks, since they see that as just one step closer to splitting up the country. Francophone politicians have said publically that if the Flemish want to seperate, they can leave Belgium – implying that the Walloon area and Brussels would remain the (post-divorce) Belgium. Yet Flemish politicians don’t want to give up on Brussels – which also makes a genuine falling apart of the country unlikely.

I hope some Belgians who are based in Belgium will add information and their views – there is much more to say than I did in my brief post.

6

novakant 09.23.08 at 5:33 pm

Hm, that sounds all rather dismal. If you care for some Belgium related fun, I can highly recommend In Bruges, but only if you don’t mind politically incorrect humour and are able to understand a rather heavy Irish accent.

7

novakant 09.23.08 at 6:21 pm

oops, managed to mess up that link: In Bruges

8

John Quiggin 09.23.08 at 9:22 pm

It certainly seems unusual to have a separatist movement that wants to take the capital with it.

9

mollymooly 09.23.08 at 9:22 pm

“the Walloon area and Brussels would remain the (post-divorce) Belgium”
One wonders if they would be allowed to retain more than just the name. The international community refused to recognise the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as the successor state of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after Croatia et al had seceded.

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