16th Nov 2018

Belgian government talks unravel, again

  • This is the eighth attempt to reach an agreement between the Flemish and the Walloons since elections in June 2010 (Photo: EUobserver)

The long-standing political crisis in Belgium deepened on Thursday (7 July) when a fresh plan for restarting government coalition talks was rejected by the separatist Flemish party.

Hopes were high that the 110-page position paper put forward on Monday by Socialist Elio Di Rupo could form the basis for further negotiations, with Belgium now getting on for about 400 days without a government.

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The plan appeared to go a substantial way to meeting the demands of the Flemish separatists, the N-VA party - the biggest winners in last year's elections - for more fiscal autonomy, institutional change and devolution of powers.

However, Bart De Wever, the N-VA head, rejected the paper out of hand.

"Unfortunately after a thorough reading of the note, technical analysis by our staff and from external expertise, the N-VA has decided that the note was not a good basis to start negotiations," he announced.

He strongly criticised what he called the "tsunami of new taxes" proposed by Di Rupo and the fact there are no limits proposed for unemployment benefits. Proposals for a solution to the thorny problem of an electoral district around Brussels - in Flanders but inhabited by many French-speakers - also come at too high a price, according to De Wever.

He noted that suggestions for financing regions and local communities do not assure them of any autonomy, while other proposed institutional changes bring "nothing new".

De Wever added that he is open to forming a coalition with all French-speaking parties and some Dutch-speaking ones in favour of re-starting talks.

Belgium is divided into richer Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, wanting more power for local communities, and subsidy-dependent French-speaking Wallonia in the south, which fears devolution will see it lose out economically.

The post-election discussions have focussed on three issues - the future of francophone suburbs in Brussels that lie within Dutch-speaking Flanders (the issue that caused the collapse of the last government in April 2010), a new federal financing law and the refinancing of the nation's capital Brussels.

Protracted coalition talks are nothing new in the 10-million-strong country where there is no national constituency but only regional ones. However, the length and fractious nature of the current talks have led some to wonder if there are any options left.

"Without compassion," says a headline about De Wever on the Flemish language daily De Standaard's website. "The Belgian systemic crisis continues. Nobody sees a way out."

For her part, Beatrice Delvaux, the editor of the francophone newspaper Le Soir, in a piece entitled 'This is not a country' castigated De Wever's "intransigence" and called on him to "stop trying to make us believe you want to reform the country."

Meanwhile, De Morgen reports that calls for an international mediator to try and resolve the political impasse are getting louder.

Alain Destexhe, a French-speaking liberal politician, suggested that a "European personality" or someone from another "federal structure" such as Canada or Switzerland could be appointed.

Flemish politician Jan Roegiers tweeted: "Time for an international mediator. Really. We will never manage otherwise."

The other option is new elections. But for that the parliament would first have to vote on dissolving itself.

Liesbeth Van Impe, a political commentator at Het Nieuwsblad, said that it seems Di Rupo, winner of the elections in Wallonia, and de Wever will never sit side by side in government: "The manner in which de Wever treated the noted of Di Rupo leads one to think that they have reached the same conclusion." Elections look more and more inevitable, she concluded.

The Belgian crisis is attracting international attention. Analysts worry that the markets are going to start taking a hard look at the political stalemate, with the country's public debt at about 96 percent of annual economic output.

Late last year credit rating agency Standard & Poor's warned it might cut the country's AA+ credit rating. Fitch, another international agency, said the same in May.

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