Repent! Repent! The End Is Nigh! (or something…)

again, a very fine guest post by dr. Arf

Bart de Wever, leader of N-VA (source)

So, last time I posted, N-VA had won the national elections in Flanders, Vlaams Belang was the biggest loser of them all and is now back to where it belongs : in the margins of the political landscape, rotting from within and all the other traditional parties goth either a big smack upside the head (Open VLD, CD&V) or saw their margins thin out even more, albeit less significantly (SPa, Groen). Meanwhile, in Wallonia, PS won back their lost ground from MR – FDF, while the other parties held their respective ground.

So what did this mean? Those who read the blog and my update, already knew that both winning parties would have to work together to come up with a new government team. However, that N-VA won in the north and PS in the south made one thing very clear : both regions chose a very different political style, therefore illustrating the big difference between the two. N-VA is a right wing political party, while PS, obviously, is left wing. While they dance around the centre of the political spectrum, especially N-VA does so on the fringes with a very ultra liberal economical and social program, which is diametrically opposed to that of the socialist parties on both side of the language border.

N-VA has three immediate problems :

1) The mass of voters that made them the biggest party in Flanders aren’t all ultra liberals, nor are they die hard nationalists. What most voters wanted, was to send a signal to the political south that a) no, they’re not going to budge when it comes to ceding territory around Brussels and b) that they’re sick and tired of the whole B-H-V question being run aground by delaying tactics and (politically) unrealistic demands. Those 28 percent didn’t turn nationalist over night and any N-VA politician thinking otherwise is fooling himself. They were given a mandate to try and realize their party program, though, which some voters may now regret not having read it entirely.

2) N-VA isn’t the biggest party in Belgium, only in Flanders. Percentage wise, PS remains the biggest party in this country, gaining more than 30 percent in Wallonia. While this is still well below the political hegemony of the days of yore, it’s still obvious that they, too, have been given a mandate to realize their political program which is, as we said, diametrically opposed to that of N-VA. Their big score also means they have the right to the prime ministership, but we’ll get to that later.

3) N-VA winning may have been a joyous moment for the party, it also means they will have to compromise in the formation talks in order to come to a government. The question most if not all political commentators have posed before and after the election is : is N-VA ready, willing and able to do so? One can imagine this wouldn’t sit well with all the nationalist hardliners who have been with the party ever since it was still called Volksunie.

N-VA actually has a fourth problem : that of the Wallonian perception. While the Wallonian press was rather cautious (well, for their doing anyway) right after the elections, we’re now well over three months into the new political reality and knives and swords have been whetted and the first mediatic skirmishes have already taken place. “Why?” might you ask? Well, this calls for an overview of these past months…

At first, N-VA’s Bart Dewever and PS’s Elio Di Rupo – who’s chomping at the bit to become PM – agreed that Dewever would clear the path for Di Rupo by holding talks with just about everyone who’s relevant in the political world : party chairmen- and women, unions, employer organizations and other lobbyists. Three weeks in, I almost feared he would invite the janitor of the federal parliament to see what he had to say.
After this round of talks, Dewever needed some time to come to the conclusion that there were ‘convergences’ which would allow to build a governing team with the following parties : N-VA, PS, SPa, Groen, CD&V, CDH and Ecolo. This would mean a ‘mirror’ cabinet, with all parties having their respective sister parties across the language border joining, except for N-VA, which of course has no sister party in Wallonia. However, said Dewever, this would not be easy and plenty of work still had to be done.

Di Rupo was then upgraded to the status of ‘informateur’ for another round of information talks with the respective parties. Flash forward to another couple of weeks later, and Di Rupo virtually says the same as Dewever did. The message between the lines is clear : there still no ground gained, enough to start formation talks. Di Rupo then visits King Albert II, our country’s ever loyal referee, who – pardon my French – is shitting his pants at the prospect of losing his kingdom and appoints Di Rupo to a heretofore non- existing status : that of ‘preformateur’. Needless to say, this caused many hilarity and sarcasm within the world of political commenting, as well as the political opposition. Basic message : Di Rupo is incapable to getting a governing team together.

Unfortunately, this is the case and while at first a before unseen rule of discretion is upheld by all parties involved, cracks eventually start to show when it becomes apparent that N-VA isn’t going to budge over certain points, like the financing law which divides the federal income between the regions. According to Di Rupo, it was agreed that this would not be on the table during this formation, but N-VA claimed that Wallonian demands made it inevitable to keep it off the table.

While it might come as a shock to most Wallonians, it actually makes sense to definitely arrange this financing law, which is so complex that it’s actually costing the federal government money. But the Wallonian politicians fear that it will end the money stream from Flanders which they have been dependent on ever since their heavy industry collapsed that touching this law is the same as strangling them financially. Which is incorrect, but neither the politicians, nor the media down south are prepared to even consider this.
Instead, the preformation talks were blown up again and all of a sudden, Wallonian politicians are starting to talk ‘nationalist’ speak’. Several PS politicians said their constituents should ready themselves for a separation. Where before there didn’t seem to be one, there was now a ‘Plan B’ on their minds : separating from Flanders, taking Brussels along into something called ‘Wallonian Belgium’. Some ‘rattachists’ even would like to see Wallonia and Brussels added to France, which I’m sure Sarkozy would like as much as he likes Roma gypsies.

So, with our Wallonian brethren now chiming in about separation, is this a feasible scenario? Several political commentators seem to think it’s bull. And theoretically, they would be right. There are so many political intricacies making it impossible for either region to secede, like Brussels and its financing and statute. In all likelihood, Brussels would not want to go along with any of the two regions, because it likes being what it is, a sort of unofficial European Washington D.C. Brussels has the most to lose in this scenario, not in the least its status as European Capital.

However, your Dr. ARF doesn’t think in theories, as he’s some sort of amateur history buff and he agrees that in order to see the future, one should often look to the past. Therefore, I say that it could be highly likely that a breakup scenario could happen, because theoretical logic might not even come into play. Case in point : World War I. Up until a few days before it began, there was absolutely nothing that indicated an armed conflict was going to take place. Every party involved still believed diplomacy would prevail. However, a few minor events decided otherwise and millions died because some people didn’t choose to follow the logical course of action. The devil is in the details. You, as Slovenes, know all too well how fast a political disagreement can escalate into armed conflict.

While I’m not saying it will be necessarily so, I just am pointing out that Belgium breaking up – be it through sheer political means or civil war – is definitely a feasible scenario, in spite of all the theoretical naysayers.
Going on four months now, the preformation talks have stalled, Dewever and Di Rupo are trying to rebuild their political trust in each other and we still are nowhere nearer a federal government than we are to a national budget for next year. Social security wise, things are brewing like an underground lava flow about to burst and this Autumn is promising to be littered with strikes and protest marches. Who again said ‘Nil Volentibus Arduum’ after he won the elections?*

*N-VA’s Bart Dewever

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

8 thoughts on “Repent! Repent! The End Is Nigh! (or something…)”

  1. Interesting blog, detailed and accurate…a nice summary of Belgian politics in the last months…
    I actually think there will be no split of the country as there is something missing – people! The majority of Belgians simply do not care that they have no Government and they do not follow politics as we do in our country. Slovenes are almost bombarded with all possible news and almost obsessed with politics that is also one of the subjects in literally every conversation…

    Just keep on going analysing the world around us ;-))

  2. Will do, mojca. 😉

    However, what you’re saying about being bombarded with all possible news in Slovenija and being obsessed with politics holds true for this country as well. Before 2007 one could say people were indifferent about it, but these days just about everyone has an opinion, not in the least those who claim to have no opinion.I know my country – on both sides of the language border – well enough to know people here do actually care about politics, albeit for many different reasons. N-VA winning the federal elections in the Flanders region certainly is a prime example of how the Flemish voter has sent a significant signal to the Wallonian politicians. And the majority of those voters (believe) they know why they cast their vote in favour of N-VA. Trust me, we get slapped upside the head every damn day with federal, regional and communal politics just as much as Slovenes are. Even the political analyses are analysed inside and out, back to front(talk about being anal :mrgreen: )…

  3. Thanks for this great post and for shedding some much needed light on the bag of worms that is Belgian politics.

  4. My, my! This is starting to look like a congregation of the usual suspects. iLike! 😀

    My two cents on the issue at hand: In order for an “uncontrolled break-up” to occur, things must get out of hand both politically as well as economically.

    Thanks to your posts I and everyone else on this blog can get a glimpse of the Belgian political reality. And while there indeed are many similarities between Yugoslavia in 1988-1991 and Belgium today (language and financing issue), there are also many substantial differences.

    Fist of all, there’s the EU. Regardless of what one may think of this “entity sui generis” it is a strong factor in the whole business, especially vis-a-vis the issue of Brussels, as you already pointed out. It’s not just that Brussels itself is not keen on losing the title of the EU capital, I think that no one in the EU wants a debate on where the institutions should move to in case Belguim breaks apart. Unless of course, Brussels were to separate from Wallonia and become a city state. But I don’t think anyone wants to go down that road.

    Secondly. Financing. While Flanders may play the role of Slovenia while in Yugoslavia (i.e.: the economic engine of the country), Wallonia is no Kosovo or Serbia (money-guzzling bottomless pit of corruption and ineptitude). From what I read there are areas in Wallonia that are actually picking up.

    And thirdly: despite all the apparent animosity, you still have only two strong factors to deal with: Flanders and Wallonia. And as long as both peoples and their respective leaders have their heads screwed on right, not a lot can go terribly wrong. You see, in Yugoslavia there were altogether nine powerful players (six republics, two regions plus the federal army) which were nominally divided into two unequal camps (plus neutral observers like Macedonia), but in reality this was a nine-way-game of everyone against everyone else. Given your latest post I don’t see that happening in Belgium any time soon.

    Personally, I think you guys were closer to disintegration a couple of years ago than you are today

  5. Some interesting viewpoints, P. Shows you’re not just well informed about Slovenian politics only. 🙂

    But I feel a – extensive – reply is in order, because there are some factors that need addressing…

    To the first : yes, the EU is a strong key in all of this and you’re right, not just because Brussels would like nothing less than to lose its status. However, there are several factions within the EU that would like nothing more than seeing Brussels stripped of its title and rank. France, for example, as the EU, or at least part of it, is still run from Strasbourg, which after all is French soil and the rivalry between the two has been well documented. On the other hand, this is of course a good carrot to hold in front of the Belgian political donkey : split, and you’ll lose not just the EU, but also NATO and possibly even SHAPE (located near Mons, in Wallonia). Never forget, though, my friend, that politics is the art of backstabbing refined to a tee and some key EU players would gladly see Brussels lose its status, through any means necessary. It’s not because it’s not being said out loud anymore (i.e. it’s not the media’s centre of attention these days) that it’s any less true…

    To the second, a slightly longer reply : financing is actually what this whole drawn out, tenuous information crap is all about. N-VA wants it arranged, as do their former cartel partners CD&V. The Flemish left, SP.a and Groen!, however, feel that plenty of guarantees were given that this would be addressed. This, in a large part, has to do with the fact that the Flemish left is very weak at this point in time and especially SP.a feels a lot stronger following the lead of their Wallonian counterpart. Bart Dewever said this in an interview right after the information talks had gone up in flames and I find his observation to be right.

    It’s actually good you bring this point up, because I felt I had left something important out of my post. The reason for the talks to end without an agreement was that the Wallonian parties gave their word – and only that, nothing in writing – to solve the financing law, then went to the (Wallonian) press literally the next day saying in essence it would be an icy cold day in hell before they would do so. It’s not so surprising then, that N-VA walked away and Bart Dewever was able to drive this point well home in the Flemish press. Again, logically speaking, he’s not wrong : what good is one’s word if they publicly go back on it the first chance they get? It’s only after this polemic hit the media, that some PS alumni started uttering the ‘nationalist’ speak I referred to.

    However, in spite of some regions in Wallonia picking up – most of all Wallonian Brabant province – by and large the entire region is still plagued with high rates of unemployment. The most severe region suffering from this is the Hainaut province, which is still like having a third world country in your back yard. I kid you not, and I mentioned this in my very first series about Belgium. Things have not changed there. Liège may put up a good front, but truth be told, I don’t see a lot of progress there either. Some prestigious architectural projects do not a province on the rise make.

    Look, let’s not mince words : right now, Wallonia has several better assets when it comes to investing in economy : they have cheap labour, room to spare and the Wallonian government is ready, willing and able to support industry that’s willing to invest in its region. The thing is that they still need those money transfers from Flanders to do so, as it is the established strong economy right now (or, what you call ‘the economic engine’, nicely put 🙂 ). Take this away, and Wallonia would most likely have to apply for EU loans, something which they already have in the case of the aforementioned Hainaut Province, but that scheme went nowhere, sadly. Sorry for the long windedness on this point, but I feel it’s actually of some importance to point out what’s going on financially over here.

    To the third and last : you said it, P : IF they have their heads screwed on right. Knowing human nature, I’m not altogether so sure that what still applies today, will apply tomorrow, if you know what I mean. Hence my referral to the prelude to WW I.
    And while I wholeheartedly agree with you that the circumstances are vastly different where it comes to YU and BE, I’m starting to see that regionalism pop up in a place not seen before so far : the German speaking East Cantons, that so far have inherently been part of Wallonia, but are now seeking greater independence. While this part of Belgium is the least in favour of a break up, they are standing up for themselves and this also could become a factor in any future talks about state reform. In fact, I’d bet on it. Having two parties pitted against each other is one thing. If there’s another party that could upset the balance either way, it becomes a whole different story and in that sense, the political situation in Belgium would resemble that of the former YU republic a lot more than it does today, even if it’s with 2/3 less players.

    Lastly, I understand why you say that to you it appears as if this country was closer to disintegration three years ago than now. But it is just perception, my friend. As I pointed out in my post, all parties started out by being incredibly discreet, as opposed to the information and formation talks three years ago. There was, in fact, hardly any communication from any party involved until the whole process was starting to unravel, whereas three years ago, all party heads came out of the talks and went straight to the press to blab just about everything that had been disagreed upon – which was a whole lot. Meanwhile, the honeymoon’s long been over and, as illustrated, strong words and declarations have taken over again. Trust me, we are a lot closer to disintegration now than we were three years ago, even if the perception indicates otherwise…

  6. Very fine arguments. And I only have one reply:

    Knowing human nature, I’m sure that modern-day politicos will instinctively know when to stop in order not to undermine their positions of power. Because if Belgium goes, so do their power-bases as everything has to be re-built (figuratively speaking, hopefully) from the bottom up. And surely new faces with new agendas would surface.

  7. Dr. ARF,
    Thank you for this deep (I dare to say wise) words…I do believe, according to pengovsky that political common sense could be the basis for decisions on disintegration of (however we consider the recent events) still a country, governed by politicians…

  8. You’re welcome, mojca, and thank you for those kind words. 🙂

    However much I would like to believe common sense will prevail, I may just be too much of a political pessimist.

    If I may reply once again to your reply, P : in most cases, you would be right. However, since this nation has already been so very federalised, the power bases are also divided along those lines and this also holds true for the EU representation of this country. This in turn would make things easier to rebuild in case this country unravels as the power positions would remain largely intact.

    Again : it is mostly Brussels and its unique position which holds this country together. On all other political levels, either region could easily run itself without involvement of the other, were it not for the federal money to be divided…

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