Monday, 30 August 2010

No end in sight for Belgian political chaos

I just returned to Belgium this morning after a week in the US, and when I disembarked from the plane to my new country of residency I learned that it is one step closer to not being a country for much longer. The government talks following June's election have just collapsed – meaning the country still has no government and is unlikely to be able to form one before the end of the year. Not such great timing considering Belgium still holds the EU rotating presidency for the next 4 months. But even if that extra responsibility weren’t sitting on the Belgian government’s shoulders right now, this continuing chaos is starting to border on Kafka-esque absurdity. So as I readjust to life in Belgium this morning after a week home in the US, I’m yet again left asking – is there a compelling reason for this country to continue to exist?

Last night the leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party (PS), Elio di Rupo, offered his resignation to Belgian King Albert II after negotiations to form a new government broke down. He is trying to negotiate with the Flemish separatist party NVA, which won the majority of the vote in Flanders in the June election. Di Rupo’s Socialists won the majority of votes in Wallonia, and so the two parties with directly opposing goals must come to some kind of coalition agreement to form a national government with other parties. In the mean time, no government has existed at national level since April. But since most governance functions have by now been devolved to the three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels), you’d never know the difference.

The King refused to accept Di Rupo's resignation, so the socialist leader announced today he will carry on trying to form a coalition. He is really in an impossible situation, because he is being asked to form a consensus between parties that have completely diverging goals. The NVA, led by Bart De Wever, wants a gradual dissolution of the Belgian state over the next decade, with more and more powers transferred to the regions over time until the country is eventually dissolved. Their main concern is that they are tired of wealthy Flanders having to subsidize poor Wallonia, and they want to be able to keep the tax money they contribute for themselves rather than having it go toward subsidizing the large number of unemployed people in Brussels and Wallonia. On the other hand, Di Rupo’s Walloon socialists do not want Belgium to be dissolved, and they do not want to start on a road toward that dissolution by ceding more powers to the regions. They also know that without tax contributions from the Flemish, the social welfare state in Wallonia would collapse.

All of this fighting over the future of Belgium takes place in the context of a public debt that is projected to rise to over 100% of GDP this year. Austerity measures similar to those being pursued elsewhere in Europe are badly needed, and quickly. But with the national government unable to do anything until a coalition is formed, its hands will be tied over the coming months both in dealing with the public debt and in steering the EU presidency.

For Belgium the situation isn’t just embarrassing any more, it has become dangerous. Speaking after this meeting with the king, di Rupo said the country is on the brink of political chaos. With both sides refusing to budge, it’s unclear what’s going to happen next. Personally I'd be rather upset if di Rupo does resign. Its not much of an issue here in Belgium and the media rarely every mentions it, but he's openly gay and therefor would have become the first openly gay male leading a country (though only the secon gay of either sex, since Iceland currently has a lesbian prime minister). It would have been interesting to see that glass ceiling broken, and I hope it still will be.


Kidasat said...

Well, by now, I think nobody really cares if he's gay or not as long as he's doing his job - as should be the case.
For why should someone's sexuality be of any importance regarding his/her career ?
I lean, really, does Tiger Woods really play better golf now that he publicly asked for forgiveness ?

& the main issue here concerning the impossibility to have a government is not the Flemish excuse of "Wealthy Flanders paying for Poor Wallonia" they've been using for over 10 years now, it's the ultimate goal to split the country, which they would achieve by de-regionalising Brussels, thus swallowing the capital in Vlanderen, & with it all the international wealth it's bringing to Belgium.
& let's not even go over the disastrous result it would have on Brussels inhabitants daily life, as, when part of Flanders, they's certainly be forbidden to use French, just like in the "communes à facilités", when 85% of these inhabitants are natively french speakers...

Anonymous said...

OMG, this article is so full of mistakes on belgian situation... : the biggest could be the ignorence of the way belgian democracy works: reading this it seems you believe that there is 2 coexisting majority systems, one in each of the linguistic communities. It is not like that at all. Belgian democracy is proportionnal, hence the neccessity to have a large coalition of parties, not only to have a majority in both communities but also to have the 2/3 of votes necessary to revise the national constituation. And neither NVA nor PS have a majority in their respective linguistic community, they are the first party in each, but that is far from a majority position. Hence the necessity to discuss reforms with many political entities (7 here) which is uneasy and takes time. Your economic analysis is also problemetic to say the least, as the recent Eurostat reports prooves that the wealth of the country is produced primerly in Brussels, not in Flanders.

Anonymous said...

As kidasat said, the main problem is Brussels. Without Brussels , wealthy flanders is nothing. Wallonia without brussels is nothing.

People in Brussels feel much closer to wallonia than to flanders and will never accept to be Flemish.

That's why it's chaos: Flemish don't want to pay for poor wallonia, but still want to get paid by richest Brussels.

Tom said...

Brussels may take in more GDP than Flanders (mostly thanks to the EU institutions) but this is in many ways artificial since many of those workers live in Flanders. Anyway this article is referring to the unemployment rate, which is indeed drastically higher in Brussels than in Flanders. Unemployment is 22% in Brussels, compared to 9.3% in Flanders (and 17.6% in Wallonia). Who pays for those unemployment benefits? The Flemish do.

As regards anonymous's comment, in practice any coalition will need to involve both the socialists and the NVA, they are the main parties everyone is watching. Yes on paper the system is proportional nationally but in practice it is not, the party that reached majority on either side cannot be ignored if the government is to have legitimacy.