Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thurs 21 July - Happy Belgium Day!

Today, it's Belgium's National Day, marking 181 years since Belgium gained independence in 1830. However, King Albert, its current king, is not happy. The king used his traditional speech to express his grave concern at the fact that this current bunch of politicians couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery. Okay, he didn't really say that, but he may as well have.

He emphasised, once again, the fundamental importance of all parties working and negotiating together, and coming up with a workable solution for forming a government, a mere 404 days since the general election.

Bart de Wever's N-VA, the Flemish separatists, (although the media seem to conflate 'nationalist' with 'separatist') backed this time by the Flemish Christian Democrats, have once again proved the biggest obstacle in reaching any sort of agreement. On 7th July, it seemed that a compromise had finally been reached between Elio Di Rupo, leader of the Wallonian Socialist party, mayor of Mons, and most crucially, the man charged with forming a government, and all 9 (yes, 9!) political parties.

But, De Wever objected to several points in this 'compromise text.' For example, he found fault with the fact that Belgium would attempt to cut its deficit by increasing taxes (it already has some of the highest in Europe), whilst simultaneously barely cutting public spending. He complained that the text ignored many of the economic reforms recommended to it by bodies such as the IMF and OECD. He was also unhappy with many of the proposed structural reforms, in particular their effects on Brussels.

In short, we're back, once again, to where we've been for well over a year. Many have accused De Wever of being deliberately instransigent, playing to the Flemish nationalist lobby, and never having the whole nation's interests at heart. Just to remind you, his party were the biggest winners in Flanders in last year's elections, yet his behaviour hasn't impacted on his support up there, because recent polls indicate that he is more popular than ever.

What De Wever wants is increased autonomy for Flanders in everything from foreign policy to having its own judiciary. Separation is his ultimate goal, but he has been fairly quiet on this in recent months, knowing that no party is ever going to agree on this. Yet.

Six months after the general election, he caused a stir by proclaiming in an interview with Der Spiegel, a German weekly news publication, that "Belgium has no future." This is well worth reading, if only to further emphasise how difficult it's going to be to find a way out if this political impasse. The opening exhange gives you a flavour:

SPIEGEL: Mr. De Wever, how much longer do you think Belgium will last?

De Wever: I'm not a revolutionary, and I'm not working toward the immediate end of Belgium. And I don't have to do that, either, because Belgium will eventually evaporate of its own accord. What we Flemish want is to be able to control our own judiciary, as well as our fiscal and social policy. We feel that foreign policy is in better hands with the European Union. But the nation of Belgium has no future in the long run. It is too small for greater political ambitions, and it's too heterogeneous for smaller things like taxes and social issues.

The latest news is that the Flemish Christian Democrats, the CD&V, have returned to the negotiating table after Di Rupo agreed to a compromise in his 'compromise text' (well, if you choose to name it as such). So, we're now back to 8 of the parties at the table. The Francophones: socialists (PS), liberals (MR), Christian democrats (CDH), and greens (ecolo). And the Flemish: Christian democrats (CD&V), liberals (Open VLD), socialists (SP.A), and the greens (Groen!), with the N-VA grumpily sitting in the corner, refusing to take part.

I particularly like the wonderful use of punctuation in the names of some of these parties. We've got full stops, an & symbol, and even an exclamation mark.

But, none of this can happen just yet. King Albert has very thoughtfully told all parties to take a 3 week holiday after the draining exercise of not forming a government. They can then come back, refreshed, re-energised, and ready to not form a government for another 12 months.

Happy Belgium Day!!

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