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.

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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.