Nothing Really to Celebrate

As I noted in this previous post, July 21 – yesterday – is each year the Belgian National Holiday: think along the lines, for example, of the 4th of July in the US. Except that yesterday in Belgium the occasion was more like America on 4 July 1860: then, Abraham Lincoln had just been nominated to be the Republican Party candidate for the upcoming presidential election in November, and it was evident that, while he had a good chance of sweeping the more-populated Northern states with his party platform forbidding any more slavery in US territories, nobody in the South would vote for him. Indeed, if he turned out to win the presidency nonetheless (which of course he did), there was very likely to be serious trouble, yet it was hard to think of any alternative scenario by which the presidency could be won by any of the other candidates, each of which were politicians backed by yet-narrower sections of the country. Likewise, there was precious little of any “national” nature to be celebrated in Belgium on its “National Holiday” yesterday, even as one can assume that any similar implicit prospect of violence does not apply in this modern case.

When last we left portly, avuncular old King Albert II, he had received Prime Minister Yves Leterme’s resignation but had yet to decide whether to accept it. In fact, he did not, but what he did do was appoint three “mediators” with assignment of working out some way to breakthrough the current government deadlock. The fundamental problem is that the political representatives from Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country, of whom Leterme is currently the leading representative, are not willing to let things go on without some concessions from the other half of the country, French-speaking Wallonia, which would increase the former’s and reduce the latter’s influence over the national government, especially concerning what federal tax monies are spent on (of which the Flemings contribute the larger share). And interestingly, the three “mediators” King Albert appointed have nary a Fleming among them: they are two politicians from Wallonia (François-Xavier de Donnea, Raymond Langendries) and one from the tiny German-speaking part of the country (Karl-Heinz Lambertz).

They might have been handed something very close to a “Mission: Impossible” if the analysis from “V.R.” in today’s La Libre Belgique is anything to go by (Ten Days to Get Out of the Impasse). The deadline to accomplish something seems to be 31 July, but who set that deadline? The King? Well yes, in a way, in that that is the day the King wants to see some sort of preliminary report from the three. But it was Bart De Wever, head of the somewhat militant Flemish political party Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), who set a more seriously deadline by announcing on Friday that he expected to see some concessions from the French side by that 31 July date on the subject of reforming the Belgian State along the lines his party desires (as summarized above). De Wever can throw his weight around like that, you see, because his N-VA is a large part of the coalition with the more moderate Flemish party of Yves Leterme (the Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams, or CD&V) – and with three parties from the French side – that forms the present Belgian federal government. It’s the existence of that coalition that enabled the King to reject Leterme’s resignation in the first place, in effect saying “No, you go back to your coalition and resume governing the country.” If/when the N-VA leaves the coalition, then it no longer commands a majority in the federal parliament and some other Prime Minister has to be found who can put together a coalition that does – the King certainly does not have the power to appoint as Prime Minister anyone he pleases, only one that has that kind of support in parliament, because after all Belgium is a parliamentary democracy. (Yes, a prime minister can be appointed from a minority coalition, but of course only then with additional guarantees from outside-the-government parties that they will not vote to topple it in vote-of-no-confidence – in the present situation, basically tantamount to having to have a majority coalition behind you.)

Leterme The Only Choice

At this point I finally realize how naïve I was in my previous entry over Belgium’s latest crisis, when I concluded that the King would not reject Leterme’s resignation because “that’s really not the sort of thing you do.” In fact, that was likely the only thing the King could do here because, with Leterme gone, there was really no one else Albert II could think of who would be both willing and able (defined as being able to command a majority coalition) to replace him as head of government. Of course you keep the guy who is already there, otherwise Belgium is plunged again into a chaotic and annoying situation in which there is no government, there is no prospect of a government, and while everyone argues about what should be done there is no duly-constituted national authority in place to make the policy decisions that need to be made about affairs both inside and outside the country. Belgium has already faced that situation too many times in the recent past – generally, after every recent national election, including most especially the nine months of this exquisite sort of political purgatory after the latest such elections in June, 2007.

So Albert II avoids that for now by telling Leterme to get back to work – but the point of that July 31 deadline from the N-VA is that the N-VA will start getting what it wants politically or else it will withdraw from the coalition then, so that Leterme cannot be Prime Minister anymore, and so plunge the country once again into this purgatory. Really, imagine that sort of thing happening in your own country: no national government, and nobody able to say when there will be a national government or who it will be. It’s really something that’s barely tolerable, and the important thing is that, each time it happens, everyone gets that much more exasperated with the present system. Belgium happens to be a very federal country already, with substantial powers and responsibilities handed over to the regional governments who never have crises of this sort, for the simple reason that the regions more-or-less correspond to the separate cultural/linguistic areas. So the answer that becomes more and more obvious to the electorate is to do away with this national government that seems to be always paralyzed – do away with the nation – and proceed with only the regional governments. (But then there remains the question of who takes charge of the notable island of prosperity, tax-revenue, and EU institutions that is Brussels: a French-speaking island – but not by much – surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders . . .)

Rainy, Gloomy Celebration

Anyway, it was 21 July yesterday so the show had to go on with the usual festivities. Appropriately, though – just so that no one would forget themselves or the situation and get into too festive a mood – yesterday was also a very rainy Monday, coming after quite a rainy weekend, and De Standaard reported that, temperature-wise, it was one of the coldest July days of the last hundred years. Still, Brussels Celebrated Despite the Political Crisis. The royal family attended the traditional Te Deum Mass at the Brussels cathedral, accompanied by Yves Leterme who slipped into the cathedral by a side door. Naturally, the cardinal president at the service preached for mutual understanding in his sermon. Then, despite the rain, the customary military parade took place in front of the Royal Palace, starting at 4:00 PM. In addition to Army soldiers and vehicles, representatives from the police also took part in the parade; De Standaard notes their particularly notable demonstration of riot control personnel and equipment. And King Albert gave his National Day speech: “In our land we must think of new forms of society.”

Meanwhile, as his own contribution to National Day, the mayor of Antwerp, Patrick Janssens, noted that Belgium was reverting to where it was back in the beginning in the 19th century, when only Finance, Justice, Interior and Foreign Affairs were competences handled at the national level, everything else was in the hands of the regions. (French-language reporting in Le Soir here, to give a bit of balance.) It’s not sure whether he thought that a good thing. But the Gazet van Antwerpen issued the results of its own poll, which indicated that 33.7% of the Flemish people would like to unite Flanders with the Netherlands. (The respondents had some funny ideas about how that would happen, perhaps reflecting their over-estimation of the hand they would hold in negotiations to bring that about. Name of the new country? How about “Vlaanderenland” or “Nedervlaanderen,” although “Nederlanden” would probably be best – cf. the current “Nederland” as the Dutch name for the Netherlands. Capital? Amsterdam, or maybe Antwerp. Head of state? Preferably no royal family; if there has to be one, then let it be the House of Orange, i.e. the Dutch Royal Family, certainly not the Belgian Royal Family. Etc.) On the other hand, a collective of “progressive Flemish intellectuals” marked the National Day by releasing a manifesto (“The Flanders That We Want,” printed here in the French-language paper La Libre Belgique) in which they regretted that political interests in the 21st century still seem to have to be based upon regional and language interests, denounced the long-standing demands from the Flemish political parties for a “re-balancing” of the federal government more in favor of Flanders, and called for a new political order in Belgium.

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