Belgian Crisis: Bet On The Split

While the Belgian government is today wriggling over the constituency issue of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) which once again might throw the country into a government-less limbo and renewd chaos, you can play an online dead pool game to predict when Belgium will cease to exist. The prize: your weight in Belgian French Fries.

“The symptoms are pointing towards a terminal disease”, unknown pranksters write as they invite you to bet on when Belgium will die. You can place your bet by clicking here: http://www.wanneergaatbelgiedood.be/

The organisers promise to give the winning prediction his/her weight in frites, the Belgian invention that has travelled the world under the name of French fries; yet another example of how this country has failed to gain a profile of its own. (The world apart from the UK, that is, where Belgian French fries are called ‘chips’ and chips are called ‘crisps’, because we love to confuse things, but let’s not get technical now).

Predictions range (as of yet) from today’s date, May 8, to July 1, 2013. “Flanders first!! then the frites…!” writes Mathias, who put that date down, while “Better late than never” is the verdict from Eric de Bel, who anticipates the split at September 17 this year.

I refrain from casting a vote, being an impartial journalist.

Meanwhile, the Belgian government is amking another attempt at forcing a vote in Parliament over the BHV issue. The government is at a 50-50 per cent chance/risk of having to resign shold things not go their way, which would mean that the executive body that was so painfully forged dduring nine months of anguish will have stayed in power for only two months. Since that govermnent almost never happened, and was the end of the road or a lengthy consitutional crisis, the resulting problems may prove too difficult to overcome, and early predictions on the demise of the Belgian state may therefore prove correct after all.

Stranger things have happened.

Belgian Crisis: Deadlock Holiday

Thought the Belgian Crisis was averted with the inauguration of a new government? Think again. The trickiest question of them all yesterday forced a scheduled Parliament session today to be cancelled, to the tune of cries of foul.

Even though the largest parties eventually managed to form a government, some nine months after last year’s elections, the country remains fundamentally divided over the issue over the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency. Not much to squabble about, British readers may wonder, as constituency borders in Britain are redrawn all the time. But in a country so delicately balancing on a knife’s edge between different and diverse interests, the question of how to draw the borders of a simple constituency has become a major issue as a focal point for the tensions that still hold the country in deadlock.

In short, the Flemings want the constituency split, and the French-speakers do not. Flemings argue that its composition gives the Francophones a disproportionate say, which the Francophones unsurprisingly refutes. The Flemings, though, have a verdict from Belgium’s Constitution Court in their favour, saying that the constituency does discriminate against them and must be split. The Francophones continue to obstruct this verdict to this day, which is why it has not been implemented yet. But the same court has said that no new elections can be held until the split is carried out. Ergo: Deadlock.

The new government, a fragile alliance between members who fought against each other during the height of the crisis, has the unenviable task to resolve all this.

The issue was to be debated in the Belgian Parliament’s equivalent of the House of Commons/House of Representatives – the Chamber – on Wednesday (30th April). But that debate has been cancelled since the Speakers of the house cannot agree on how to hold it. Meanwhile, the government says it has no new agreement on the issue to put forward, according to the Belgian magazine Knack.

Of course, the opposition is crying foul, saying that “Parliament is virtually abolished”. “An absolute low point”, raves the Flemish Socialist Party leader Peter Vanvelthoven, and the far-right if not right-wing extremist and separatist Flemish Vlaams Belang is equally outraged.

They will try again next week, after the extended weekend due to the May 1 holiday tomorrow and the extra day off that most businesses are taking during Friday. It remains to see whether the speakers have agreed enough by then to even have the issue discussed – but don’t put your money on it.

Belgian Crisis: A Government Against All Odds

Against all odds, Belgium today gets its new government, under the leadership of Fleming Yves Lterme, nine months after the general election was held. It took one final 21-hour negotiation session to put things in place, as usual, but now there is a deal that will be presented in Parliament today.

Not only is it against all odds that Mr Leterme actually was able to put together a government: domestic and internaitonal press alike are seriously sceptical of its ability to survive. Five parties are enough to make any government shaky, already without adding the extra dimension in Belgium of ethno-lingual conflicts on top of the political-ideological ones. And Mr Leterme will try to keep the government together that he basicaly wasn’t able to forge on his own. Indeed, according to recent polls, not only 90 per cent of the Walloons but also more 55 per cent of the Flemings do not trust him as Premier.

Against all odds is also the fact that “Madame Non”, Joëlle Milquet who played a large part in derailing the attempts to form a government last year by stubbornly letting go of Walloon opposition to the constitutional reform the Flemings in general and Mr Leterme’s CD&V party in particular demand, will take place in the same government. She will be minister of Labour and Equal Opportunities; not exactly a top post in the government, but she’s still there. (Edit: She will have the status as vice Premier, together with all the other party leaders in the coalition as well as one more member from CD&V).
We shall see if the two are capable of cohabiting.

Apart from the Christian Democrat parties CD&V and Ms Milquet’s cdH, the new government also consists of Flemish and Francophone liberal parties Open VLD and MR, and the Francophone socialists PS.

Belgian Crisis: Leterme In Hospital

Belgium’s next Prime Minister, the Fleming Yves Leterme, has been hospitalised during the last few days because of gastro-intestinal bleeding. As current deputy premier, he has participated in governmental deliberations by telephone.

His spokespeople say that he will be fit to assume the role as Prime Minister on March 20 as planned, in spite of the strain it will mean to try to hold the conflicting interests together.

We shall see what happens.

Belgian Crisis: Soon It’ll Start All Over Again

Belgium’s interim Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, has announced that he will hand over power to the controversial Flemish politician Yves Leterme on March 20.

That is three days early, but Mr Verhofstadt – who lost the election last year – believes that he has fulfilled his obligations to take the country out of the immediate rut by then.

However, today, just one full month before the handover, it is still unclear exactly which parties will be part of the new government, let alone which ministers it will consist of. Mr Leterme’s primary coalition partner, Francophone Liberal Didier Reynders, is out shopping around among the various political groupings as we speak, but there is not yet any firm commitment of whatsoever among any number of parties that could form a majority in Parliament.

In other words… here we go again.

Verhofstadt For President?

Gearing up for the election of a new President of the European Commission next year, the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt is emerging as a candidate who might have strong support.

Little has been said so far in public about whom the member states will appoint to head the EU’s executive body (there are no public elections to this powerful entity), and the current holder of the function. José Manuel Barroso, is expecting re-election.  But now, it seems that three-time Premier Verhofstadt might be one of the favourites.

Mr Verhofstadt, a Liberal, enjoys the backing of the Socialist party group in the EU Parliament, Metro writes quoting Le Soir, and the group, second largest in the EU Parliament with 215 out of 785 seas, is hoping to forge a centre-left coalition to support his candidacy. Mr Verhofstadt’s ideological friends, the Parliament’s liberal group, seem less enthusiastic, but will not rule out supporting him.

We shall see what will happen once the mightier movers of the Union such as the French and German governments have put forward their opinion, and Mr Verhofstadt himself has not commented or disclosed if he would be available as a candidate at all. But holding together the increasingly disparate nation of Belgium under the recent crisis might prove good exercise for anyone who would want to make 27 nations pull the same direction.

Belgian Crisis: A Government For Christmas (Gone By Easter)

Belgium will finally ge a new government tomorrow, almost 200 days efter the general election. But it won’t last beyond Easter – actually.

The solution to the stalemate has been to form an “emergency government” dealing with the most urgent things, such as working out a new state budget. This caretaker government will be voted on on Christmas Eve, and will be led by present Premier Guy Verhofstadt, and comprise his Flemish liberal party and its Francophone sister party, the Flemish and Francophone Christian Democrats, and the Francophone Socialists.

The Francophone Christian Democrats – led by Joëlle Milquet, dubbed “Madame Non” for her repeated refusals of all previous governmental constructions, almost opted out of the interim government. That would have meant that the Flemish Christian Democrats would have governed together with its ideological opponent, the Socialists, while not together with its ideological twin party on the other side of the language frontier. In other words, that would have once again proven that in Belgian politics, language is far more important than ideology.

By Easter, the helm is to be handed over to Yves Leterme, the leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats, who after all did come out as the election’s biggest winners. But he has repeatedly failed to unite enough parties on both sides of the language frontier to achieve a government, and the premiership he is going to take over is the doing of Mr Verhofstadt. Thus, he will be governing on someone else’s mandate.

It remains to be seen how that will work.

Belgian Crisis: Recycling Old Prime Ministers

Belgium’s current Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, has been asked by king Albert II to try to form a new government, after all else have failed – and in spite of being considered to have lost the general election in June.

The first information we have is that he has called upon the French-speaking Socialist party for talks; a move which will further go against the trend in the general election, and likely complicate attempts to get the centre-right parties on board even further. But such is the current political situation in Belgium, that the language-group divides are far more important than the political ideologies – and the outcome of the election  is becoming less and less important by the day as the pliticians struggle to solve the situation.

Belgian Crisis Has Now Turned Into Chaos

Yves Leterme has given up attempts to form a government and resigned from his task yesterday (Saturday). 175 days after the election, the country is thus not only without a government, but back to square one – or even furtherback a few steps from there.

Mr Leterme could not unite the two Flemish and the two French-speaking parties in his proposed coalition , which remain as divided over liguistinc lines as they ever were before talks started. In the end, it was French-speaking Christian Democrat Joëlle Milquet who rejected Mr Leterme’s final offer, again dubbing her “Madame Non” as a previous refusal from her to accept Mr Leterme’s offers thwarted his previous attempt to patch the government together, a few months ago.

Thus, the Flemings are blaming the French-speakers for throwing the process back into chaos, but the French-speakers’ standpoint is that the Flemings are to blame for holding on too stubbornly  to their demands for devoltion of federal powers into regional hands, which they fear will dry up the current federal funds that transfer money from the wealthier Flanders to the poorer French-speaking Wallonia, and eventually tempt the Flemings to break off and form their own country.

Everybody is now looking to the king, Albert II, for a solution, as the next step is formally for him to take. The odds are in favour of Didier Reynders, the leader of the French-speaking MR party and currently Minister of Finance, as the next person to try to form a government. However, the question is what he will form a government out of.

The general sentiment is that the centre-right coalition proposed so far, consisting of Mr Leterme’s CD&V, Ms Milquet’s CDH, Mr Reynders’ MR and the Flemish-nationalist N-VA, is dead. But there is little to replace it with.

Omitting ‘Madame Non’ and CDH would end up four seats short of a majority in Parliament for the remaining three partis, so they need another coalition partner. They have been in favour of taking in the French-speaking and Flemish speaking Green parties (as with most other partes, there are two parallel entities, one for each language group), but both Ecolo and Groen, as they are named, have already refused to help the CD&V-MR-N-VA lot.

The other main alternative would be to cross the left-right divide and bring in the Socialists, but that would neglect the outcome of the general election, which seemed to speak in favour of a swing to the right, and the CD&V-MR-N-VA group has so far rejected such ideas.

And even if Mr Reynders does manage to patch up a coalition, he will not get the CD&V on board unless he lets Mr Leterme become Prime Minister, the CD&V have stated. A government without CD&V would be unthinkable as they are the largest party in Parliament and generally seen as the winners of the election. But having Mr Leterme as Premier seems equally unthinkable, as he has now proven his incapacity to negotiate a solution that all involved will follow, and adding to his already vast lack of popularity among French-speakers, such an inability would cast serious doubts over his capabiliy to lead the country through whatever hard times may or may not lie ahead.

In other words: the country needs leadership, Mr Leterme has proven he can’t provide it, but the largest party insists that he takes the job or they won’t join a government.

Try sorting that mess out.

Selling Belgium By The Euro

As those of you who read the comments on this blog have already noticed, the man who tried to sell Belgium on eBay has a new listing up: Get a Belgian citizenship for EUR 25.

“The perfect Christmas gift”, writes Gerrit Six, journalist and now also officially prankster, as he offers buyers the chance to enjoy, amongst otgher things, “speculoos, Belgian fries, tax evasion, hilarious elections” and “never winning the Eurovision Songcontest”, the latter sadly proving that he has already forgotten Sandra Kim, but that’s beside the point. Other benefits of course include “national debt (300 billion Euro)”, and, “for those who enrole before Christmas an extra bonus: THE WORLD RECORD RUINING THE COUNTRY WITHOUT GOVERNMENT”, he writes.

He could have added “the largest percentage of a country’s surface occupied by congested roads”, but I’ll elaborate on that in the next blog post instead.

Full link to Gerrit Six’s latest offer: http://cgi.benl.ebay.be/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=200178129569&ssPageName=ADME:L:LCA:BE:1123

A Response To The Economist

The Economist magazine usually provides good reading, but in their latest blog entry about the Belgian crisis, they’ve got it completely wrong.

In the entry http://www.economist.com/blogs/certainideasofeurope/2007/11/belgium_the_model_european.cfm , they argue that the Belgian crisis is not anything to worry about for the EU, since Belgium is only an analogy of the EU, but the EU is not the same thing as Belgium.

They’ve completely missed the whole idea. It is not merely a question of Belgium being an analogy for EU in some sort of symbolic way, as The Economist itself puts it: “because Belgium is a federal state merging different language communities, and hosts lots of EU institutions, it is a model EU in miniature”.

The problem is of a completely different kind. As I have elaborated on in my blog entry https://newtonline.wordpress.com/2007/11/09/belgian-crisis-why-you-should-be-worried/ , it is far, far more than a question of mere symbolism. The problems with Belgium are parallelled point-by-point in the European Union as an institution.

Belgium merged different language communities without asking the people, and the current crisis is in much a question of many of these people wanting a different deal than their ruling elite offered them. That’s your first clue, which The Economist fails to recognise.

The lack of public legitimacy, the lack of public support, the lack of public interest in the state/union on an everyday basis, the democratic deficit in the establishing of the nation/union, the tension between the net payers and the net receivers, the sentiment of groups being marginalised, the endless corruption… all of these are at the heart of the Belgian crisis and all of these lie at the heart of the current EU as well.

This is way beyond Belgium being a miserable souvenir in a EU tourist shop… it is an example of what all the above issues can and will lead to on a European level as well, if they are not dealt with properly. Brushing things off the way The Economist does will only speed up the advent of the problems.

Belgian Crisis: Waiting For White Smoke

“We’re still waiting for the white smoke”, one member of the Swedish delegation laconically remarked to me one late evening some time ago, as we were waiting for a meeting of the European Union’s Agriculture ministers to conclude. The same can be said about the current Belgian crisis right now, for we are all as much awaiting any sign that the conclave has reached a decision in its meetings behind firmly shut doors as those who gather outside the Vatican whenever it is time to elect a new Pope.

The difference is that right now, you could certainly speak about there being two parallel conclaves in Belgium; one currently lying fallow as it awaits the outcome of the other set up by the king. The latter will see its sovereign today, but there is little to indicate that it will have reached any progress. As has happened before, there have been signals that there might be a government in place before the turn of the year, but as I indicated, that is something we have heard before, and we have to see it to believe it.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks on, and it is tempting to start advocating a similar solution as when the Catholic world had been without a Pope for three years; then, the inhabitants of Viterbo, where the conclave was held, locked the cardinals in, served them nothing but bread and water, and took the roof away from over their heads. That resulted in the election of Gregory X in 1271, as well as the decision to keep the cardinals locked in during every papal conclave ever since.

But as for now, the only one locked in is me, for my kids have a day off from school today and my wife came down with the flu this morning, so I am trying to work while keeping things together here at the same time. Hopefully it will be a little different by tomorrow so I can go se what the Brussels meeting of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was all about.

Or at least find time to have a shower.

35,000 People Want A Belgium (But What About The Remaining 9.96M?)

There are at least 35,000 people who still think it is a good idea to keep the nation of Belgium as an entity. This became clear on Sunday as they turned up for a large manifestation in Brussels in support of keeping the nation together, in he face of the current Belgian crisis which has threatened to split the country into two nations.

I caught a glimpse of the mood as I drove into town to have a look after Church on Sunday mogning. However, I had lingrered for quite a while after the service, talking with friends, with the result that I arrived just as the whole thing was over. But I did look around to get a general feel of things, and noticed that the feelings were surprisingly calm. Unity was the aim and unity was certainly the result of the event, because it seemed as those participating had been able to leave the squabbling aside and actually meet in a spirit of reconciliation.

There was no shouting, no visible hot-headedness, and the radio report played a clip of the national anthem La Brabançonne sung by the participants in all three of Belgium’s official languages.

By any standards, this is an encouraging sight indeed, because it does provide some hope that whatever the outcome of the current Belgian crisis might be, it will be reached in a peaceful way.

However, 35,000 is not a record for a public manifestation in Brussels. When the “white march” against the authorities’ incompetence in handling the infamous paedophile scandals took place in 1996, the number was 300,000. Thus, one cannot help but wonder what the remaining 9.96 million Belgians who did not take part in yesterday’s event think about the future of their coutry. Do they agree that it should stay united, are they in favour of a split, or do they simply not bother?

Judging from what people usually say when I ask them, the latter is probably the truest answer. Most people are fairly apathetic or indifferent to the ongoing squabbling, and one must remember that any shake-up of the country is percieved far less dramatic here than it would be in, say, the UK, since Belgium has existed for such a relatively short time and has been shifted back and forth between so many different rulers over the preceding centuries.

More interesting is the well-known phenomenon that politicians tend to be more radical in general than those who vote for them. This is true all over the political scale and has been observed by many political scientists, who note that e.g. socialist parties want far more state interference than their voters, centre-right parties want far more deregulaiton and private initiative than their voters, and so on.

Judging from the general mood, Belgium’s French-speaking and Flemish parties seem to be far more zealous to defend the percieved interests of their respective language groups than the people who actualy constitute these language groups, and may reach the point where their efforts to fight for their own may lead to their own abandoning them altogether.

It is always difficult to fight on behalf of other people… because you might discover that they do not want to be fought for.

Belgian Crisis: Tit For Tat

Belgium’s Francophone political parties are retaliating at the decision of their Flemish counterparts recently to overrule them on the issue of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency (BHV), which threw another spanner in the already stalling attempts to form a new Belgian government.

The French-speakers have vowed not to negotiate the BHV issue as long as the Flemish regional government refuses to endorse three mayors in Flemish-speaking councils, the election of whom was declared invalid by the Flemish authorities because French had been spoken in the preceding debates. The Flemish, in return, claim only to follow the local rules known to all in the communities, where language is such a sensible issue that officially Flemish-speaking communes are required by law only to speak Flemish on all public matters, including relations to the general public.

The appointment of the mayors of the communes of Linkebeek, Wezembeek-Oppem and Kraainem – all close to Brussels and along the border of the nation’s language divide – was effectively overruled by the minister responsible for such matters in the Flemish regional government. Yesterday, he reiterated his standpoint, only to immediately be accused of violating democracy, as the French-speakers point to the fact that the mayors were elected representatives of the people whose decision must be honoured.

The weekend is otherwise expected to be somewhat of a cooling off period, with a manifestation in support of a unified Belgium at one of the country’s biggest national monuments in Brussels on Sunday as the most notable event. However, as mentioned in previous blog posts, the king, Albert II, will expect some progress by next week on the crisis management, and it will be very interesting to see what will happen if no progress has been made by then.

Belgian Crisis: The King Gives Ultimatum

Belgium’s king Albert II has given two of the main parties involved in the current struggle to form a government one week to come up with a proposal that will include suggestions on how to crack the trickiest nut of them all, the queston of the federal versus regional relations.

Herman Van Rompuy (CD&V) and Armand De Decker (MR), who not only come from opposite sides of the language divide but also happen to be the Speakers of the Belgian Parliament’s Chamber of Representatives and Senate respectively, are thus asked to come up with something that almost 160 days of haggling has not. All formal negotiations will remain idle while awaiting the outcome of the two gentlemen’s discussions.

It is not clear, however, what the king will do if they fail.

They, in turn, have already stated that they want to set up a council of heavyweight politicians to solve the relational issues, which would be yet another way of burying the issue under a pile of procrastination: such a council would work for years, and perhaps take up to three governmental terms to reach any conclusions, it is reported today.

The question remains whether or not that will be a workable solution. A similar idea of rallying “wise men” around the same issues was rejected during the last few days by several of the parties involved, and given the heavy pressure from the Flemish politicians on a local level, it is difficult to see how they would be able to wait for so long for an outcome. More importantly, the question remains on how on Earth to hold the next general elections before the question of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency has been solved.

Mr De Decker believes that there will be a government in place before the end of the year, and the king remains equally optimistic. However, others are less convinced, and in either case, the quesiton is where all this will leave the once designated incumbent Prime Minister Yves Leterme, who is now literally watching from the sidelines how others are doing the job he was appointed to do.

It will be very difficult indeed for Mr Leterme to step up and take the reins of someone else’s negotiated agreement, especially since he appears not to be part of the Van Rompuy-De Decker round at all.

I certainly would not accept the top job on those terms.

Belgian Crisis: Door Slams On Elections

Belgium’s struggling attempts to form a new government lost yet another possible way out today as the new chairman of the country’s Constitution Court slammed the door on any plans to call a new election to break the stalemate.

The political parties in Belgium have been struggling since Election Day on June 10 to form a government that will have a majority in Parliament. However, talks have ran aground over a number of issues concerning the future balance of power between the federal and the regional authorities, brought to focus over the question what to do with the constituency which both includes the mainly French-speaking Brussels and Flemish-speaking towns including Halle and Vilvoorde, which the Flemings have voted to split against the will of their French-speaking counterparts.

The designated Premier-to-be Yves Leterme is increasingly appearing to have failed his mission, and parallel talks hosted by king Albert II are reported tonight as being deadlocked. One of the few options left would therefore be to call a new election that would perhaps shift the Parliament in such a way that a majority would emerge that could form a government.

But that option was slammed shut this afternoon by Marc Bossuyt, the new chairman of the Constitution Court, the same court which ordered the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency to be split three years ago on the grounds that it discriminated against the Flemish-speakers. The federal elections on June 10 were the last that could be held before the question of the “B-H-V” had to be resolved, Mr Bossuyt told VRT, and any elections after that without solving the issue would be unconstitutional.

“New legislation must be worked out that does away with this discrimination”, he told the VRT, though without suggesting any way to do so in practice.

This means that Belgium tonight is stuck dead over an issue which it would need a new election to resolve – but also that it can’t hold such an election unless it resolves that very issue first.

As this Catch 22 sinks in, it is time not only to count the days without a government, but also the days without any negotiations over the formation of a new government: official negotiations have now been shut down for six days. Meanwhile, the country appears to be heading steadily towards what would have been unthinkable a year ago: outright disintegration.

Belgian Crisis: All The King’s Men

Belgium’s king Albert II is muscling his way into the attempts to form a new government in the country, 156 days after the general election was held. While the usual process is for the king only to appoint one person to secure an alliance among parties strong enough to form a government that will have a majority in the new parliament (who usually also becomes Prime minister), and then counter-sign all decisions, the king has now started inviting the fighting sides to outright negotiations at his own table.

People with a more detailed insight into the Belgian constitution will have to decide when and if the king will overstep the line, but it is in any case becoming increasingly clear that he is slowly taking over from the man appointed to the job, Yves Leterme. The picture is compunded by the fact that Mr Leterme has not only failed completely once – before the last few weeks’ total chaos, that is – but also by the fact that Mr Leterme is genuinely impopular as a Prime minister candidate. A majority of the Belgians do not support him in that role, largely because he is so unpopular in the French-speaking Wallonia district, which in turn is much because of his outspoken Flemish interest views.

However, Mr Leterme’s seeming inability to reconcile the different points of view in the current crisis – in much due to his inflexibility on Flemish issues – has led many to start thinking that he is not the right man to unite the vastly diversified Belgium under his leadership for a full government period, either. Now, the king’s inteventions are further undermining Mr Leterme’s position, and Mr Leterme is starting to look like a lame duck.

As for the king’s efforts, though, it seems that even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put the government back together again. Shrouded in secrecy, the strategy appears to have been to form a coalition government including the Socialists, who would otherwise have been left out, and lift the deal-breaking issues from the formation attempts so far (on how to share powers between the different layers of society) into a “council of wise men”. This strategy is looking fairly hopeless at the moment, though, as the Socialists have flatly rejected to step into a government to save their political opponents of the embarrasment of failing to form a government, and the two leading Flemish parties, the “nationalist lite” N-VA and Mr Leterme’s Christian Democrat CD&V, are as reluctant as ever to form a government without the state reform issues on its agenda.

De Standaard today openly claims that the king cannot save the proposed government, either. The question is, then: Who can?

Belgian Crisis: Desperate Attempts

Belgium’s king Albert II has formally asked the Flemish politician Yves Leterme (CD&V) to continue his attempts to form a government, in spite of this week’s complete breakdown in trust between the Flemish and the French-speaking parties that have negotiated unsuccessfully for 152 days to form a government that could find a majority in the Parliament.

The latest talk here is to form an “emergency government”, which will only have social and economic issues on its agenda but steer clear of any of the constitutional issues in which the current crisis in Belgium is rooted. However, the CD&V’s intended Flemish coalition partner, N-VA, has flatly rejected such an idea, and today, CD&V has joined the N-VA line.

N-VA was formed as an attempt to divide the Flemish national vote, which has seen the far-right if not right-extremist Vlaams Belang grow into one of the largest partis in Flanders. The N-VA is well aware that a too soft stance on Flemish nationalist issues will drive many voters back into the arms of Vlaams Belang, which has a very high-profile presence in its part of the country and can be said to be constantly campaigning. Vlaams Belang is openly secessionist and is hoping that the current Belgian crisis will lead to Flanders becoming an independent nation.

One scenario proposed by the De Morgen daily is for the N-VA to support the proposed coalition in Parliament without beng part of the government itself. This has been tried by the Swedish four-party centre-right coalition government of 1991-1994, which was depending on far-right populist party Ny Demokrati for a parliamental majority, a construction which proved instable and next to unworkable as the country’s financial crisis hit full force towards the end of the term.

Meanwhile, all the French political parties – both those involved in government formation talks as well as those who would be left out of the proposed government – will today for the first time invoke the so-called “Alarm bell procedure”, a legal quirk under which one of the country’s ethnic groups can freeze a decision taken by the other against its will. In this way, they hope to stall the implementation of Wednesday’s decision by the Flemish majority in the Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee to overrule the French-speakers and vote through a split of the constituency that encompasses the entire, mainly French-speaking Brussels as well as several Flemish areas including Halle and Vilvoorde.

French-speakers in the Flemish parts of this area fear that they will be unable to vote for French-speaking candidates, should the split go through, while the Flemings insist that the current situation gives the French-speakers disproportional influence. A constitution court has already ruled that the constituency is an anomaly compared to the rest of the country’s election system, and must be broken up, but the French-speaking Walloons have resisted implementing the decision.

Belgian Crisis: Why You Should Be Worried

I write quite a lot about the current crisis in Belgium right now ultimately because it concerns every European, as it might be a foreshadow of things to come in the EU.

After the ethnic and linguistic mud-slinging from French-speakers and Flemings alike has been disregarded, all can unite around one objective fact: Belgium is an artificial geopolitical entity, imposed on its inhabitants from the top down.

It is true that there was enough public support for the idea in 1830 to set up today’s Belgium for there to be an armed uprising against the Netherlands, which the country had been part of for the last fifteen years. But that was largely a revolution in reaction to the Protestant Dutch ruling over the Catholic Belgians, and as religion has become completely marginalised in today’s Western Europe, that is no longer an issue.

Rather, the superpowers of those days found it convenient to have an excuse to put another buffer zone in the middle of what was already – and would become for more than another hundred years – themain battlefield of Europe, one of the most strategic locations. The formation of the new state quickliy became a matter for the ruling elite, both domestic and international, and was thereafter imposed onto the people within its boundaries. There was little or no public say in the process, and even when democracy did catch on, large groups felt marginalised and unable to participate on equal terms.

All of this – all of this – could be written to describe the history of the European Union as well. The formation turning from a great idea into becoming a matter only for a ruling class; the lack of public say, the general apathy before the whole idea instead of healthy patriotism, the endless compromises to make everybody happy that eventually make nobody happy. The allocation of public funds from one end to another, leading to frustration among the payers and apathy and subsidy dependency among the receivers. The endless corruption that bit by bit undermines whatever public support there might have remained, and bit by bit reinforces the image of the state/union as a playground for a faceless nomenclatura, which is irrelevant to the citizens’ everyday lives. And so on, and so on.

In Belgium, this is resulting in anger among many, which should not be taken lightly. However, again, much of today’s Belgian crisis is also seemingly exploited by the political parties, who are probably more at odds with each other than their voters are. This is also fully possible in the EU, where political parties who play on people’s disappointment with what the state/union has done for them – or rather, not done for them – can quickly gain ground, and cause devastation once they have done so.

This should not be brushed off. The multi-faceted Belgium has been hailed as a model for how the EU in all its diversity could function – but its dysfunctions could in equal amount become a sad model for future tensions in Europe as well.

We may not be there yet, but national leaders in the EU member states would be wise to monitor the disintegration of Belgium very, very closely, and ask themselves some seriously tough questions on how to avoid this happening in the EU as a whole. 

Belgian Crisis: French Front Forms

The French-speaking parties have responded to today’s decision where the Flemish overruled them in using their majority in Parliament to vote in favour of splitting the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency. The French-speaking parties have decided to invoke the special procedure in Belgium, under which any of the country’s two ethnic groups that feels discriminated against, can delay a decision by 60 days. This will be used on Friday to stall the implementation of today’s vote.

Thus, a new election to try to break the current stalemate cannot take place during this year.

However, there has been no formal calling off of the governmental formation talks yet, and they may very well continue once the dust has settled and feelings have cooled. Both sides appear tonight almost slightly embarrassed by their respective inflexibility forcing the crisis to reach this level, and there has been some retracting of confrontational rhetoric from both sides during the cause of the day. Especially the French-speaking parties have called on all politicians to take their responsibility in solving the crisis, well aware that that is what most Belgians want them to do, after all.

Belgian Crisis: The Country May Have Died Today

Belgium will be unable to sign the EU’s Reform Treaty on December 13 and may be on the brink of full disintegration as the Flemish parties today went ahead with their previously announced threats and overruled their French-speaking counterparts by voting in favour of a split of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency.

The French-speaking members of the Committee on Home Affairs, where the vote took plave, almost unanimously rose from their seats and left the building as the vote was announced. Their exit was applauded by members of the far-right Flemish Vlaams Belang party, who gleefuly waved at them as they left.

The country is now in a free fall into full political chaos, as this will likely have been the final nail in the coffin for the current government negotiations. On the 150th day without a government, a new executive seems further away than ever.

It is still unclear, however, what will happen next. Comments have been cautious so far, but in any case, there will now be a legal wrangling over the decision to split the constituency that may very well take a few months, before today’s decision is actually implemented.

The country cannot hold another election before that is done, effectively ruling out the possibility of calling an early election to break the deadlock.

In either case, it is now more likely than ever that the country will not have a government with a mandate to sign binding agreements on December 13, when the EU member states are to sign the Reform Treaty in Lisbon.

Today’s move may well have been the start of the process that will lead to the split of the country, as divisions between the Flemish and the French halves of the country are deeper than ever before. There will also be constitutional difficulties in resolving the crisis.

Belgian Crisis: Everybody’s Waiting

Everybody is waiting for today’s make-or-break events in the Belgian crisis as I write this. Some time after 14:30 CET, the Standing Committee on Home Affairs in the Belgian Parliament will vote on splitting the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency, and the Flemish majority in the Committee will mean that the vote will be in favour of a split.

If that happens, the French-speakers will officially leave the attempts to form a new government. Olivier Maingain, leader of the French-speaking FDF party, has publicly said that such a vote would prove that the Flemish leader of the negotiations, Yves Leterme, is not capable of reconciling the parties, a statement which is being seen in press comments as the end to the negotiations.

We shall know more this afternoon.

Belgian Crisis Breaks The Record

The current Belgian crisis today brke anotgher record as it the country has now gone for a longer time than ever before without a government, while haggling over the new executive goes into its 148th day. This week is likely to be make or break, thou, because as I have said previously, negotiators from the Flemish side of the table have given themselves until Wednesday to resolve the most tricky bits. If they fail, they will use the fact that they have enough of a majority to vote for a splitting of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency, effectively overruling the opposition from the French-speaking Walloon half of the country, a move that is likely to end the attempts to form a new government altogether, and which will leave the Belgians with few other options than to try to call a new election – the validity of which could be challenged on constitutional grounds – or even break up the country.

Meanwhile, support for Belgium as a unified country seems to be increasing, at least in the French-speaking parts, judging from what is visible. Every time you go to a residential area around (French-speaking) Brussels, you see an increasing nu,ber of Belgian flags flown from windows and balconies, a symbol of support for the country staying together. However, you still do not see that in the Flemish areas, a fact that may be a foreshadow of things.

There will also be a rally held in favour of the country’s unity – fittingly in the Jubelpark/Parc du Cinquantenaire, which was originally constructed to celebrate the countrys 50th anniversary of existence in 1880.

But not until the 18th of November. By then, the rally might have taken on the form of a wake instead.

Belgian Crisis: New Election May Come

There may soon be new elections in Belgium in order to resolve the current crisis. This has become clear as the Flemish Minister of Interior, Marino Keulen, has ordered local authorities not to scrap their old voting computers.

These older computers were to be used one last time in the last election before being retired, and will be unusable at the next elections in 2009, VRT reports. Thus, the only reason for keeping them now would be that the Belgian state is preparing itself for a new election. This would be to try to form a Parliament with a distribution of votes among parties which will enable a majority to form a government, something that the current Parliament is seemingly unable to do.

“The councils must count on that there may perhaps be interim elections”, Mr Keulen is quoted to having said in the Flemish Parliament.

The prospect that they would be used for a first election in an independent Flanders seems less likely, since the Flemish parliament is already in session and the Flemish government is up and running.