Thursday, 1 December 2011

After 18 months, Belgium will have a government again

Belgium will make history this weekend in two ways. When a new government is finally formed on Sunday it will end the longest period that any country has gone without a government in modern history. And when Elio di Rupo is appointed prime minister, Belgium will become the first country in the world to have an openly gay male head of government.

I've specified 'male' because Iceland actually beat Belgium to the punch for the first gay leader of any sex – their openly lesbian Socialist Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir was elected in 2009. In both countries the leader’s sexual orientation has been of little concern to the public or the media. In Belgium it is rarely ever mentioned, and in Iceland people were actually confused in 2009 when their PM’s sexual orientation received worldwide attention.

The sexual orientation of Di Rupo, also a Socialist, isn’t the only thing that makes him a different sort of politician. He is the son of Italian immigrants – a sizable population in Belgium’s Wallonia region who are descendants of the Italians who came to work in the mines in the early 20th century. This fact prompted one Belgian politician to say Di Rupo was evidence that the “American dream” is possible in Belgium.

He will also be the first non-Flemish prime minister in Belgium in three decades. It has been an unwritten rule that the prime minister must speak both Dutch and French, and since few Francophones speak Dutch (but most Dutch-speakers in Belgium speak French) this has meant the post has gone to a Fleming for the past 30 years. Di Rupo, the leader of Belgium’s Socialist party, speaks some Dutch but apparently not very well and with such a heavy French accent it's difficult to understand him. But he says an auditory disorder prevents him from being able to speak Dutch well, and that should not preclude him from being prime minister. His Francophone Socialist party won the largest share of votes in the 2010 Belgian election 535 days ago, making him the logical choice to become prime minister.

It isn't just the prime ministership, all politics in Belgium comes down to one thing – language. Belgium’s feuding French-speakers from Wallonia in the South and Dutch-speakers from Flanders in the North have been in perpetual conflict since the 1960's. The Conservative parties which won an electoral majority in wealthy Flanders want more autonomy for the regions and they want their tax money to only go back into Flanders. The Socialist parties which won a majority in economically depressed Wallonia oppose this and say tax should be a federal issue.

For 18 months the Flemish parties refused to budge on their demand for more autonomy, and the Walloon parties refused to allow the country to be further federalised. Neither side had enough of a majority to form a government on their own, so the only way to form a government was for them to come together in a coalition. Talks remained intractable until, in the end, the markets accomplished what the negotiations could not.

On Friday Belgium had its credit rating downgraded, with the agencies citing the uncertainties over the political situation and the country’s future as the reason. Belgium looked set to join the PIIGS. Suddenly on Saturday news came that, lo and behold, the negotiators had come to a hasty agreement! The timing was so absurd that when I heard the news I assumed it was a ruse, that they were pretending to have reached an agreement to avoid a bond run and buy more time.

But apparently the pressure of the downgrade put enough pressure on them that emergency talks were held and they agreed to a compromise. That compromise, of course, will only hold for maximum another 2.5 years until it’s time for the next election. And few here believe this hastily cobbled-together coalition won’t fall before then. But for now the emergency formation has worked. The yield on Belgian government bonds continues dropped from the alarming level of 6% down to 5% following the budget agreement.

But it really is testament to the power of the markets these days. Last month we saw that they have the power to make intractable governments fall when they achieved what democracy and common decency couldn’t and deposed Silvio Berlusconi. Now we see that they have the power to create governments as well! What will they do next?

The final reading of the 185-page deal was held today, with the new government expected to be sworn in Sunday or Monday. That will mean the Socialist Di Rupo will be able to keep the EU’s other two lonely Socialist leaders from Denmark and Austria company at next week’s European Council summit. They need all the company they can get. On Sunday, on the same day Di Rupo becomes prime minister, the Socialist government in Slovenia is certain to be voted out of office (they are already only a provisional government after the government collapsed in September).

But considering that the new Belgian government is actually a ‘grand coalition’ of almost all the parties in the country, it would be disingenuous to call it a Socialist government. It just happens to be led by a Socialist. The same is true of Austria. In fact the only real Socialist government in Europe is Denmark, where a coalition of the centre-left, far left and greens is ruling.

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