Coalition Di Rupo I

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 7, 2011

That’s the name of the new government of Belgium, inaugurated yesterday, which got off the ground after fivehundredfourthyone (that is: 541) days of negotiations (mind you: that number is written in Globish, not Oxford English). Elio di Rupo, leader of the Francophone social-democrats, had been trying to form a coalition for quite some time, but whether by coincidence or not, soon after Belgium’s credit rating worsened about 10 days ago, the agreement between the 6 negotiating parties quickly emerged. For those of you thinking that 6 parties make a government unworkable: a 6-party coalition is not unusual for Belgium. In fact, until quite recently this would be better formulated as 3 ‘party-families’, since it was assumed that the ideological line (being green, liberal, Christian-democrat or social-democrat, for example), was overwhelmingly more important than the linguistic identity of a party. But those days are gone, which means that we now do have 6 parties, rather than 3 party-twins.

I haven’t been following the coalition negotiations in detail, so mainly want to open up space for those of you who want to discuss whatever you want to discuss regarding the new coalition. Just three brief observations below the fold.

First, the austerity measures that have been haunting many other European countries, had in Belgium not yet been politically decided upon, let alone executed, since after the elections the outgoing government is not legitimized to make such decisions. So the wave of social protest that we have seen in neighbouring countries over the last year can now be expected in Belgium (soon after the outlines of the coalition agreement became public, the first protest was organized). Belgium is a close runner-up to the Euro-countries that are in Real Trouble, so if the government wants to lower the interest rate on its debt, it will have to do something about the trust the financial markets have. In the meantime, the outgoing prime minister did something which seems quite smart: he strategically used the difference between the (relatively low) interest rates which savers get for their money and the (high) interest rates the government has to pay to refinance its debt on the international markets, by collecting money domestically with the Belgian households (who have significant savings: the Belgian state is not rich, but many of the people have lots of savings). Shouldn’t that be a strategy that more Euro-countries in trouble can use?

Second, while this government has kept out the nationalist parties, and in that sense the tensions between the Francophones and Dutch-speaking politicians should not weigh too much on the political agenda, there is at the symbolic (and the practical??) level a black spot, since the prime minister, Elio di Rupo, speaks rather poorly Dutch. Several Flemish politicians (and not only the Flemish nationalists) have expressed concern how a prime minister of such a divided country can do his job well if he can’t effectively communicate in the language of 55-60% of the population. My personal view on this is very simple: In general, all jobs come with requirements, and it seems to me an eminently reasonable requirement that any minister of the Belgian federal government, but most definitely the prime-minister, should have a functional (though by no means perfect) command of Dutch, French and English. Whether or not di Rupo meets that criterion, is for the future to show us. In any case he has promised to improve his Dutch, and asked for patience.

Third, di Rupo is gay, and openly gay. As far as I know, nobody makes a big deal about that. It doesn’t seem to play any role whatsoever (correct me if I’m wrong). I think this is fantastic. That’s just how it should be: not an issue.

In any case, the big news for today is that Belgium FINALLY has a government. For the time being, the language quibbles and the social protests can’t spoil the feeling of relief that surely many Belgians must feel.



Scott Martens 12.07.11 at 9:03 pm

Di Rupo’s sexual orientation is no big deal, but he is the first openly bow-tie wearing head of government in modern European history. How that will play out remains to be seen.

As for his Dutch, I assume he’s done the stint at CERAN in Spa that all monolingual Belgian ministers seem to do, and still speaks poor Dutch. If not he doubtless will, but, honestly, there is no level of fluency that will satisfy the Flemings who don’t like the new government. If he can manage enough to survive TV interviews, he should feel good about himself. I doubt that there has ever been a cabinet in Belgian history whose members could all speak Dutch, so I suspect the actual operation of the government in French will not pose a problem.

I wouldn’t put money on a Di Rupo II government down the line though.


BelgianObserver 12.07.11 at 10:09 pm

Which portfolios will Vlaams Belang hold?


To 12.07.11 at 10:10 pm

“he is the first openly bow-tie wearing head of government in modern European history”

Depending on where you put the borders of “Europe”, don’t forget Johanna, though.


Colin Reid 12.07.11 at 10:14 pm

I saw an article in Le Soir describing the new government as ‘built on sand’. If that’s how the Francophones see it, how it is going down in Flanders, given the coalition doesn’t even represent a majority of Flemish seats?

@Scott Martens: Let’s not think too far ahead here – my impression is that it would be a major achievement if Di Rupo I served out the remainder of its term.


stostosto 12.07.11 at 10:20 pm


Scott Martens 12.07.11 at 10:38 pm

@To(#3): No, I mean it. “Bow-tie” is not a euphemism for gay, the man is really never seen without one. Do a Google image search.


gordon 12.07.11 at 10:47 pm

“…the feeling of relief that surely many Belgians must feel”.

I suppose that’s why they’re organising demonstrations?

“…collecting money domestically with the Belgian households…”

He robbed the banks?


Vasi 12.07.11 at 10:59 pm

Jean Chrétien served three full terms as Canadian Prime Minister, and he could barely speak either official language!


Antonio Conselheiro 12.08.11 at 12:00 am

I actually looked for Johanna’s bow tie.


Uncle Kvetch 12.08.11 at 12:21 am

Third, di Rupo is gay, and openly gay. As far as I know, nobody makes a big deal about that. It doesn’t seem to play any role whatsoever (correct me if I’m wrong). I think this is fantastic. That’s just how it should be: not an issue.

From the vantage point of the US, it’s both fantastic and downright unthinkable.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.08.11 at 5:12 am

Uncle Kvetch: I was supposing something like what you write. I didn’t had this paragraph in the draft of my post until the very last minute, but then suddenly realized that something that may be non-news in Belgium could be ‘news’ for some other countries (and yes, I had to think of the US, but there are of course many other countries where this is unthinkable).


ike 12.08.11 at 5:45 am

Scott Martens @1: I can see you’re not familiar with Toomas Hendrik Ilves.


Belle Waring 12.08.11 at 6:48 am

11: Ingrid: Definitely would be huge news in many countries, including both the US and Singapore. I have been a little confused about this whole situation right along. In the US, the federal government has to actively provide money to the various civil services and armed forces once a year. All of them. Or else they don’t have any money. How have the Belgian civil servants been getting paid? Have taxes been paid or just ignored on the grounds that there is no one to collect them? Why is there not trash piling up in the street a la Naples (setting aside Neapolitan problems, but you know what I mean.) I think you have gone over this before, so I apologize for being dense about it, but could you give the nickel summary? I assume it’s like the UK: lots of professional civil servants and relatively few elected officials/appointed officials. Still though, it’s been so long now, how is the budgeting even working? Sorry to be confused on the basics. I appreciate your updating us on the situation since it rarely seems to rate a mention in the English-speaking news world.


Scott Martens 12.08.11 at 10:52 am

Belle, Ingrid’s the expert and I’ve only been Belgian for 2 months. But what the hell, I’m going to try to answer anyway. Basically there are 2 overlapping answers.

First, the caretaker government more or less gets to continue to disperse funds and issue debt as directed by the existing laws. Much of the statutory spending is just reauthorized, and the basic activities of the central government continue uninterrupted. Tax laws are still on the books, the funds to pay tax collectors are still budgeted. Money comes in, money goes out. The system is less dependent on regular budget authorizations than the US is.

Second, a large share – the largest share – of direct government activity is not undertaken at the federal level in Belgium. The regions and communities operate the health services, the schools, the unemployment scheme, I think the roads but not the railways, trash collection… and paid my wages and unemployment through the governmentless period. They were not without a government at any point and continued to receive their shares of collected taxes, because that is authorized by the existing laws. Belgium can survive if there is a government missing because it has so many other governments to take their place.

And… this is the first time it’s been this bad or gone on this long, but federal government crises are not a novelty in Belgium. If the system collapsed every time there was a political impasse, Belgium would have starved to death ages ago. For years, it was in part fear of speculative attacks on the franc that eventually forced the parties to compromise, but with the euro, they had some more wiggle room. Also, the last election went unusually weird even by Belgian standards. But yeah, this is not Belgium’s first crisis of disgovernment. What would be utterly crippling in the US is not necessarily under Belgium’s distributed political scheme.


Scott Martens 12.08.11 at 10:55 am

@ike(#12): I stand corrected.


Matthias 12.08.11 at 11:10 am

Colin Reid points to an issue that is more important, I believe, than any other:

“If that’s how the Francophones see it, how it is going down in Flanders, given the coalition doesn’t even represent a majority of Flemish seats?”

There are doubts about the sustainability of the governing coalition, and among the most important is the fact that it is quite unusual (if not unprecedented, I’m no specialist) to have a coalition that is not representative of the majority of the major community, the Flemish. This of course has happened because the NVA, the flemish front-runner, was eventually excluded from the negotiations and replaced by the CD&V. If the government does well, and Belgium is spared the worst of the crisis, this gamble might reduce the influence of the separatists. On the other hand, if it does badly (or if a European-wide recession gets blamed on the current coalition), the NVA might get stronger and it will become impossible to govern without them.

Finally, I think that it is not correct to speak of the markets forcing the consensus within the coalition. Negotiations were very advanced on highly thorny institutional/constitutional reform issues. It had bogged down (again) on the socioeconomic issues — unsurprising given the coalition’s odd mix of socialists and liberals — and it was at this point that market pressure made the negotiating parties conclude. But this was only the last chapter in a very long negotiation agenda.

I also agree that direct sales of bonds to Belgian nationals was a great idea, and might be a generalizable practice in other European countries. People with savings in Belgium are more likely also to consider that they have a stake in the continued well-being of the economy and the society within which they conduct their everyday lives. Not the case of institutional investors in the bond market. It made me thinks of US war bonds, really.


Zamfir 12.08.11 at 11:52 am

An important aspect of the funding is that the parties in a negotiation have either a majority, or at least enough support from other parties to expect a government to go forward. After all, they wouldn’t be negotiating otherwise.

So the old government simply stays on, as long as it doesn’t make controversial decisions. Basically by the grace of the negotiating parties who are buying time to work out their internal decisions.

On this case, the old government consisted of 5 of the 6 parties of the new government, and 10 (I think) of the 12 new ministers were also in the old government, though in different positions. So for most issues, there is simply continuity.


Guido Nius 12.08.11 at 1:21 pm

1 Prime Minister, 12 ministers and 6 (let’s say:) junior ministers. I don’t think continuity is the right word. There is a distinct pull to the right, partly because of the Flemish party that is not in the government and partly because the European Commission is right wing (although still not right wing enough for Cameron). That said, Di Rupo managed to hold on to some key left wing structures in place historically such as the automatic adjustment of salaries to inflation. Also, he is only one of three socialist prime ministers in the EU.

I am Flemish and I hear all of this minority government thing as far as Flanders goes and I am amazed how right wing the international press has to be to repeat this point. There is a minority government in the Netherlands as well, you know, and as far as I know they fall quite more short of a majority.

On top of this, the actual government agreement is not materially different (if at all) than the one that would have been struck with the NVA (if there ever was potential to strike such a deal with a party that clearly, and defensibly, does not yet want to get in the establishment).

Finally, it is fucking amazing that we have a gay prime minister and that it’s a non-issue in this country.


Ed 12.08.11 at 6:17 pm

“In the US, the federal government has to actively provide money to the various civil services and armed forces once a year. All of them. Or else they don’t have any money.”

I had to double check on this, but the U.S. federal budget for fiscal year 2011 (October 2010 to September 2011) was passed in April 2011. Congress has not yet passed a budget for fiscal year 2012 but at least its only two months overdue so far. In New York, where I live, its considered normal for the state budget to be passed really, really, late.

Incidentally, this is not harmless. It basically hamstrings federal bureaucrats from doing even medium term planning, since their offices operate on an uncertain variety of limited funds until late in the year, when suddenly they get all the money they should have gotten at the beginning of the year and have to spend it. In the more general sense, the continued failure of political systems to be able to fulfill even basic tasks is a sign that they are breaking down. But even in the U.S. the federal government obviously continues to function.


hix 12.09.11 at 1:28 am

“I also agree that direct sales of bonds to Belgian nationals was a great idea, and might be a generalizable practice in other European countries. ”

Not sure about how good of an idea that was in Belgium, pretty sure that wont do any good in Greece or Spain. Maybe in Italy. Belgium, in contrast to all those other countries that pay risk premiums like Belgium or higher, has a huge positive international investment position.


CharleyCarp 12.10.11 at 4:28 pm

But even in the U.S. the federal government obviously continues to function.

Only because of CRs passed by Congress, signed by the President.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.11.11 at 8:25 pm

Belle, sorry for the long delay in responding.
What Scott said (@14) seems right. The caretaker government simply continues to be the government, and can take most of the decisions that are needed for the governmental services to continue. But things that require real policy changes, such as spending cuts, cannot be made by a ‘caretaker government’. It seems just right to my mind, that the power of the government that is about to exit is constrained by the constitution (at least, that’s how it should be: exit as soon as possible, namely as soon as a new coalition is formed); the outgoing cabinet should not be given much power to make big decisions on its way out. Yet all ‘daily affairs’ that are done by the federal government, such as collecting taxes, paying pensions, repaying federal debt and figuring out the best way to refinance that debt, etc. just went on.

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