A guest post by dr. Arf, naturally.
Like the Good Doctor reminded me today, Belgium hasn’t let anyone down and stayed true to its tradition of creating crisis and instability in this little country. I’ve been saying it before and I say it again : Belgium is only a country in name anymore and, as was once again evidenced in the past three years, the water between the respective regions is proving to get increasingly deeper, up to the point where it’s ocean sized. And in my somber estimates, we’re not far from that point. Sit back and have a drink nearby, this is a long one, because the matter is complicated and requires some explanation. My sincere apologies…
I already attempted to explain the problems situated in the region around Brussel, which is Flemish territory, but over the past fifty years got increasingly inhabited by francophones. Now, I must say there is a significant difference between francophone Brusselians and Walloons. Our Wallonian brethren and sisters probably are scratching their heads just as much as their Flemish counterparts about this issue, but one thing is for sure : everyone has become sick and tired of the whole thing.
A quick recap of what it is about: an electoral district was created, called Brussel – Halle – Vilvoorde. Constitutionally, it is however illegal, because the Halle – Vilvoorde part is Flemish territory, meaning that Wallonian politicians have no legal right to campaign for votes there. The problem, of course, then becomes that there are too many votes to be gained from H – V for the Brussel Capital Region, and this of course doesn’t sit well with said parties, especially the Wallonian Liberals of MR and their cartel partner, the FDF, which in itself was established to claim the rights – rightfully or wrongly – of the francophones in the Flemish region around Brussels way back when. Their current president, Olivier Maingain has been walking around with a box of matches and a can of gasoline for the past three years, demanding that H-V should be added to Brussel, giving nothing in return and even demanding more money and the official appointment of three francophone mayors elected in the last municipal elections, who refuse to abide by Flemish constitutional law and therefore aren’t eligible to govern their respective municipalities. This, in turn, is of course fuel on the fire of moderate Flemish Nationalist party NV-A (not related to the Viet Cong, I assure you), for whom the division of B-H-V can only happen unconditionally. And even the other Flemish political parties don’t really feel like giving too much concessions anymore.
So, we had federal elections in June of 2007 and the winning party, Flemish Christian Democrats CD&V and their front man, prime minister Yves Leterme won the elections – with then cartel partner NV-A – on the promise of taking ?five minutes of political courage’ to divide B-H-V. It won Yves 800.000 preferential votes that immediately became the political millstone around his neck, as none of the Walloon politicians wanted to negotiate with him. You can read all about that in my previous series. Fact of the matter is that, ever since, there has been negotiation after negotiation, for three years straight, because the Walloon politicians simply refused to budge and neither did the Flemish. CD&V and NV-A parted ways not even a year after the elections because CD&V in the end didn’t prove to have the political courage to take those five minutes to divide B-H-V unilaterally together with all other Flemish parties. NV-A has since then become a major player, gaining a lot of votes in the last regional elections of 2008, not in the least because party leader Bart Dewever is an old school politician who knows his dossiers, is an apt historian and has a no nonsense attitude, telling it like it is and presenting himself the way he is unapologetically. He also has a dry and cynical sense of humor which seems to be appreciated by many a Fleming. In that sense, he and his party are the Wallonian parties’ worst enemy and that the politicians who landed this country in this mess some twenty odd years ago when Belgium became a federal state, on the idle hope that both regions would continue to understand each other. However, give a region its own constitutional powers and gradually transfer most of the governmental authorities that used to be in the hands of the federal parliament to them, and they will turn onto themselves, watching and reading only their own news bulletins, expanding on their own culture and becoming more and more ignorant about that of their neighbours and becoming more ignorant about each other to the point where Belgium has de facto become a divided entity, with few common ground to rally together. The common ground, in this case, consists almost uniquely of tennis players Justine Henin (Walloon), Yanina Wickmayer and Kim Clijsters (both Flemish). And maybe, just maybe, our blundering national football (soccer) team. And that, my friends, is it.
So what happened last Thursday? Well, after Herman van Rompuy, our beloved European President – if you count out UKIP EMP Nigel Farage, of course – took office, Yves Leterme returned as Belgium’s PM for a third time. It was agreed that former PM and European heavyweight Jean-Luc Dehaene, also of CS&V signature, would work out a plan to divide B-H-V that everyone could live with from December till Easter. Dehaene, who’s big on discretion as well as body mass index, wasn’t seen or heard, unless to say that this deadline was extended until the end of the Easter holidays. At that time, freshly elected Flemish Liberal Democrat party Open-VLD party leader Alexander De Croo – a coalition partner in the government – is alleged to have said that this deadline had to be respected and the B-H-V negotiations should by then have ?landed’, or they would leave the government. This was reiterated at the start of this week, when it became apparent that the Wallonian parties didn’t think Dehaene’s propositions went far enough and the latter exited in a huff of anger about their conduct during the negotiations, not in the least that of Olivier Maingain. The deadline came, and uncharacteristically true to their word, Open-VLD left the government, effectively putting this land in a federal crisis, causing the federal government to fall. De Croo alleged that it was apparent that the Walloons were just playing their tired old tactics of not wanting to negotiate, then saying the negotiations that DID take place were a basis for… negotiations to commence, and he would be right. However, all the other parties in the ?negotiations that were no negotiations according to the Wallonian parties’ came out saying that there was a basis to continue, at least until next Thursday, after which the Flemish parties would attempt to unilaterally vote the division of B-H-V. They further said that Open-VLD had agreed with that before concluding the negotiations, which was categorically denied by De Croo. Meanwhile, PM Leterme went to the king for the fifth time in three years to offer his government’s resignation, which the king said he’d take under advisement, and invited Federal Assembly president Patrick Dewael (Open-VLD) and asked him to put a stop to parliamentary proceedings for the day, in order to let everyone calm down, because it was apparent from early on that both CD&V and Open-VLD would try to put the vote to divide B-H-V on the agenda. The chaos which ensued in the Belgian parliament was something I watched with open mouth, while extreme right nationalist party Vlaams Belang took it upon themselves to sing the Flemish ?national’ anthem De Vlaamse Leeuw ? (The Flemish Lion), which is always guaranteed to disconcert the Walloons. It’s no wonder that, of course, this became the ?hot item’ on the Wallonian news as well as the newspapers down south. I’m sorry to say, but the Wallonian press and politicians just can’t seem to get their priorities straight. VB singing in the parliament scares them more than the fact they themselves have a big hand in helping to succeed what they fear most – the constitutional split of Belgium – while gangsters with Kalashnikovs raiding a jeweler and having a shootout in the midst of Brussel is considered a ?fait divers’. Nothing going on there, it happens in London and Paris too, so it’s not a big deal. I have to say ?quoi?!’ (yes, that is where Ljubljanchans get their ?kva’ from, thanks to Napoleon).
Back to the topic at hand, that same evening, Alexander de Croo was summoned by the king as well and afterwards went on record saying that he was more than willing to continue negotiations, if and only if the Wallonian parties would agree to set the deadline to next Thursday (that was implied, not said out right) and they would adhere to the propositions that Dehaene had made with no further additions. He also went on to defend his party’s governmental exit by saying that it was meant only as a strong signal to the Walloons that their philandering would not be acceptable anymore after three years of stalling. Other Flemish parties alleged that Open-VLD had made this move to score in the – constitutionally illegal – new elections that would undoubtedly follow this crisis and that they never constructively participated in the current government anyway, which of course was denied. My take on it is, that both grounds are true, with the one facilitating the other.
So, what will happen next? No one knows. The king appointed MR spearhead and vice PM Didier Reynders as negotiator to see if there’s still a basis for talks. Next Thursday, when the parliament reconvenes, it is however suspected that if talks fail, both CD&V and Open-VLD will put the ?division’ vote on the agenda, with the Walloons blocking it by filibustering and using what’s called an ?alarm bell procedure’, to take the vote off the table. As it stands, the Flemish parties could still unilaterally vote for the division, as they have done before. In any case, MR-FDF, in lieu with the other Wallonian parties, succeeded in making the Wallonian nightmare scenario, the end of constitutional Belgium, come dangerously close by their hardline demands and handing Open-VLD a way out of the government. Why? Well, if there will be new – and, again, illegal – elections, all political commentators agree that at the time of the new formation negotiations, the Wallonian politicians will find even less desire in their Flemish counterparts to come to a consensus, because it is becoming apparent that, while being sick and tired of the antics of their political representatives, theFlemish constituents will give their votes to those parties who will promise to make the division of B-H-V happen without any or at least the least amount of concessions. NV-A will have a field day. At least one Wallonian party – the Christian democrat CDH – sees that this would be a nightmare scenario and yesterday came out saying by way of party leader Joëlle ?Madame Non’ Milquet that the expansion of Brussel is not a must.
The only way this country will get a lifeline, is if both sides back down a bit, the Flemish accept that some concessions are unavoidable and the Walloons relent their unwillingness to negotiate and refrain from increasing their demands, knowing they will never get them. By which time the government can actually do what it is elected to : working on a solution for the economic crisis and improving people’s lives, none of which it apparently had the time or will to occupy itself with in the past three years. So far, we’ve had three years of nothing and have become the laughing stock of Europe to boot. But as it stands, the constitutional split of Belgium, as far as I can see, isn’t a question of ?if’ anymore, but of ?how soon’ and ?how’. With Flanders being tired of putting up with Wallonian demands about everything from land concessions to money transfers to prop up their badly managed economy (which is said to be on the rise, but so far, I’m not seeing it, while the long bankrupt Brussel Captial Region is still run on Flemish money, by the way) and Wallonia increasingly viewing the whole of Flanders as extreme separatist and making increasingly irresponsible political moves and demands as a result of that fear, we seem to go ?himmelhoch jauchzend zum Ende’. What this potentially could lead to, is something many a Slovene can testify of.