Belgium Again in Crisis

Don’t look now – but Belgium is once again in a governmental crisis. Prime Minister Yves Leterme yesterday evening (Monday, 14 July) submitted his resignation to King Albert II, after having served in that capacity for thirteen months. You’ll recall that Leterme – leader of the Flemish political party Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams (CD&V) – had been the compromise candidate for prime minister in the first place, voted in by the kaleidoscope of Dutch-, French-, and German-speaking parties of the Belgian political landscape pretty much in desperation after nine months of haggling after the latest national elections of June, 2007. July 15 (i.e. today) was the deadline he had set to be able to present a new plan for re-structuring Belgium’s governmental structure. It seemed that the deadline was coming up fast and little to no progress on forming such a plan had been made. So Leterme resigned. The Economist weblog “Certain ideas of Europe” is keeping on top of developments with an summary entry Time to dissolve Belgium?.

But delving into the news and commentary on both sides of the Belgian divide (i.e. Flemish/Dutch vs.Walloon/French) provides a more nuanced picture of the situation, as you would expect. For one thing, the Economist’s concern, “Time to dissolve Belgium?”, seems not to be the question at the forefront of Belgian political minds right now; rather, it is “What do we do now?” As the authoritative Flemish newspaper De Standaard reports (King sets confederate steps), that is a question that it is the immediate task of King Albert to decide – and he is expected to take until the end of this week, at least, to do that, in the meantime holding consultations like crazy with the country’s various political and societal actors. (One of the main assertions of the front-page De Standaard article is that the pattern of whom the king has consulted with so far suggests he is leaning towards finding a solution that would make Belgium a somewhat looser-knit confederation.)

Leterme @ Wit’s End

Theoretically, the king could simply decide to refuse Leterme’s resignation, but that’s really not the sort of thing you do except in a grave emergency, one that usually involves war in some way. The text of his resignation statement makes his position clear that he does not know what else it is that he could do: “It turns out that the opposing visions between the communities over the needed new balance in our state institutions cannot be bridged today. This indicates that the model for consultations at the federal level has reached its limits.” It’s also not clear that much of the country would welcome his staying on as Prime Minister, in any case. Commentators in the French-language papers are not pleased with him at all. In his editorial in Le Soir (A Country on the Edge of the Abyss), Luc Delfosse dismisses Leterme as “the little man from Ypres [a city in West Flanders]” and accuses him of selling out to his Flemish coalition partner, the N-VA (Nieuw Vlaams Alliantie, to gain power at the cost of giving full rein to the N-VA’s more stubborn Flemish-nationalistic political stance. (The Dutch-language financial newspaper De Tijd concurs in its lead article on the crisis, concluding from its analysis that Leterme indeed chose maintaining his party’s coalition with the N-VA over maintaining the government.) And in La Libre Belgique Michel Konen writes (Yves Leterme Leaves Without Glory) that “it is the nerves of Yves Leterme that ended up cracking.” There is no reason to make such a big deal of failing to meet the 15 July deadline, but, then again, maybe it’s good to finally see the back of the Prime Minister anyway: for the last 13 months of his time in office he has accomplished precious little, and has certainly shown absolutely none of the political courage that he breezily asserted he would bring to the job when he was originally approved for it.

Big Deal Deadline

Indeed, there does seem to be something to the point that, pace that Economist article, 15 July did not need to have such a cataclysmic significance. Yes, a new plan for federal power-sharing was supposed to be presented by then and, yes, it was nowhere close when the time came. But there was no crying need to make such a big deal out of it – that deadline was essentially of Leterme’s own making (and I don’t think I’m going way overboard if I speculate that missing deadlines for completed action like this is pretty much par for the course in Belgian politics). De Standaard has an excellent analysis piece on this (What Brought Yves Leterme Down?), which even terms the resignation “surprising,” as if no one really expected that Leterme would plunge the country again into crisis over a mere missed deadline. After all, the article points out, it had been pretty obvious for a long time that it was not going to be met, but there had been no real sign that Leterme was going to react like this – people probably just complacently assumed that he would not go so far as to resign. So why did he? Well, again, it was Leterme’s own deadline, and it turned out that he was serious about it, mainly (one can speculate) as a prod to get the other side (i.e. French-speaking/Walloon) to finally make some concessions to move talks forward toward “re-balancing” the Belgian federal government (code for “tipping the balance of power a bit more towards Flanders”). But it wasn’t working; the De Standaard article reports that the Walloon side seemed resigned to the stalled talks and looking forward to the next federal-level elections in 2009 in hopes of coming up with a new political alignment that would enable forward progress. This attitude was unacceptable to Leterme – either to him and/or to his coalition partner, the N-VA, which indeed has a more militant attitude about gaining power concessions for Flanders and gaining them soon. So you could say that Leterme did indeed choose maintaining his CD&V party’s coalition relationship with the N-VA over maintaining the government; or you could say that he had tried “brinksmanship” tactics – setting a scary deadline – to finally get some progress, the other side had called his bluff, and so he felt obliged to take the country over the brink.

In any event, whether 15 July really is supposed to mean anything or not, 21 July definitely does: that is the Belgian National Holiday (think the American 4th of July, or the French Bastille Day). How embarrassing to be in the middle of a government crisis that threatens to split your country apart on your National Day! Could that prospect move King Albert to quicken his deliberations and find some solution? More to the point, what will the streets of Brussels look like next Monday? The last couple of years the Belgian National Day has been marked by impressive solidarity demonstrations, especially in Brussels, of citizens marching to show their determination to keep the Belgian state whole. Will any more of those materialize next Monday in the shadow of this latest crisis?

Hitting Belgian Pocketbooks

De Tijd being the good business newspaper that it is, it also devotes an article to analyzing what the paralysis in the government means in practical terms for the Belgian electorate (What does the crisis mean for your pocketbook?). Quite a lot, it seems, mainly because all this hullaballoo is unfortunately occurring just when, in an ideal world, the government would instead presumably be devoting its energies to shielding Belgians from an oncoming storm of economic pain (including recent 5,8% inflation which the newspaper terms a “record” – but that can’t be right). Yes, the Belgian authorities have managed within the thirteen-month life of the latest government to divert themselves from inter-communal bickering enough to move forward on a number of economic measures, including raising pensions and even agreeing on a whole “social-economic program” for the period 2009-2011. The problem is that many of these still need to go through the final step of being formally approved by the legislature. Now that the government is once more in danger of falling – the PM has submitted his resignation, after all, even if that has not (yet) been accepted by the King – there is the real danger that these measures will have to start all over again with the legislative process.

Finally, indulge me for a moment as I bring into the record a perspective on this whole affair from outside Belgium, if only from its neighbor to the North, the Netherlands. Naturally, the Dutch are following Belgian developments with close attention, and the leading newspaper NRC Handelsblad even devotes an in-house blog to the situation there, whose latest entry is Navel-Staring in Belgium.

Unfortunately, the blog is not by-lined; but whoever is writing it does hope that Belgium could come up with some way to keep itself together as one country: “Seen from the North, Belgium is an interesting, prosperous, diverse and cosmopolitan land. As a cultural-economic twin-state it has more dimensions and options than the homogeneous Netherlands.” A split would simply result in two more islands of homogeneity, Dutch and French. More practically, as much as the Flemings and Walloons may want to claim they don’t need each other, in actual fact they are quite deeply intertwined economically, and wrenching that apart will inevitably carry high costs. And these precisely at a time when the winds of economic distress are rising! It is hardly a formula for the sort of peaceful “velvet divorce” (on the pattern of the split at the beginning of 1993 between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, of course) that some in the country may think is achievable. Any split could turn out to be more violent than people may expect.

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