Wednesday

22nd May 2019

Belgium still struggling to form government

Three months on from elections, Belgium is still struggling to form a new government, as Flemish and French-speaking parties remain at odds about the need for far-reaching state reforms – including the highly sensitive issue of devolution.

The Flemish side wants more powers for the regions, something the French side fears is a cover for gradually breaking up the country.

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Each side on the negotiation table consider their demands to be reasonable and perceive the demands by their linguistic rivals as "excessive".

Belgium is deeply divided along linguistic lines. In the north is the richer Dutch speaking Flanders, the south of the country is poorer and French-speaking (Wallonia). Brussels, the capital and located in Flanders, is officially bilingual but mainly French-speaking.

Wallonia and Flanders have little in common with their respective populations reading different newspapers, watching different TV stations and having different cultural references. This has led some to say that the country is held together only by the EU – Brussels is the European Union's capital – beer and the King.

Unusually long crisis

The current crisis reached a head when Yves Leterme, a Flemish Christian-Democrat, was unable to bridge the differing views and resigned his mandate for forming a government on August 23.

Hopes to find a way out of the crisis are now pinned on the "explorer" Herman Van Rompuy, appointed by the King.

In Belgium, a hundred days of coalition-forming negotiations are more the rule than the exception. Nevertheless, commentators and politicians alike agree that the current situation is unprecedented.

"I cannot remember a negotiation where after three months we were still nowhere. We're still at point zero," said Liberal politician Gérard Deprez in Belgian daily De Morgen.

To push state reform through parliament the Flemish Christian-Democrats and Liberals need to find partners to obtain the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution and several "special-majority laws".

Options to break the impasse decreased as Mr van Rompuy failed to enlarge the proposed coalition to include the French-speaking ecologists.

Another possible solution, opposed by the liberals on both sides of the language border, is the participation of the socialists.

All the while, there are practical side effects because the outgoing government cannot take decisions - such as fixing the fact that the maximum air noise level over Brussels is being regularly broken. The courts have issued fines to the tune of several million euro but there is no government to fix the problem.

Public opinion, currently still supportive, could also turn against the negotiators.

"We're tired of the negotiations that keep dragging on," said one Fleming. "But we shouldn't make concessions," he added.

In Wallonia, criticism is growing of the Flemish separatists also sitting at the negotiating table – the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).

Armand De Decker of the French-speaking liberals stated Sunday in a television debate that "as long as the N-VA is sitting at the negotiation table, no progress will be made," a view mirrored by French-speakers on the street.

"[They are pitting] the Flemings and the French-speakers against each other," said a Walloon woman. "The N-VA wants the end of Belgium. We want a more moderate voice."

Growing support for separatism?

Several recent opinion polls have done little to ease the worries of the southern part of the country, as Flemish support for separatism has surged to nearly 40%.

In French-speaking Belgium, where a collective identity is seen to be weaker, almost no one is in favour of partitioning the country.

Spurred by these polls, a media debate is raging about the future of the country, assessing the viability of a Flemish break-away state and the remaining Belgian rump.

But Tim Reeskens, a researcher at the university of Leuven, says the polls should be interpreted carefully.

"The methodologies [used in the polls] are absolutely not representative."

"Additionally, in the opinion polls' question, there was no space for nuance or differentiation. A complex matter like the future of Belgium cannot be embodied in a simple question with only two response categories."

"Once this crisis comes to an end, support for separatism will most likely return to its normal level of about 15%."

On Monday, the far-right Vlaams Belang took advantage of the crisis to open a debate about the issue in the Flemish parliament. It has also proposed a referendum on independence.

Other parties vehemently oppose this course of action and said that further negotiations were needed. "We are not separatists," said Patricia Ceysens of the Flemish liberals.

Belgium breaks own government formation record

Belgium has set a new national record for the longest period without a new government as parties are still trying to bridge their opposing views on state reforms five months after elections. In the meantime, Flemish parties have given their French-speaking counterparts an ultimatum.

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