The 1830 Belgian Revolution left the French-speaking, Catholic minority, concentrated in the south in Wallonia, in charge of the country for much of its history. This greatly aggravated the Dutch-speaking majority concentrated in the northern region of Flanders. The Dutch language was not even recognised as official until the 1967 Dutch language version of the constitution was adopted.
Since this time the split between the French and Dutch speaking parts of the country have only worsened until the current climax when they now threaten the future of the Belgian State.
The current crisis was brought to a head by the 2007 Election.
The 2007 Belgian general election took place on Sunday, June 10, 2007. Voters went to the polls in order to elect new members for the Chamber of Representatives and Senate.
Eligible voters were Belgian citizens 18 years and older. There was a legal electoral threshold of 5% for political parties to meet to receive representation, but in several election districts the real electoral threshold is higher than the legal, due to the small number of seats to be elected in the particular district. The 150 members of the Chamber of Representatives were elected from 11 electoral districts. The 40 Senate members were elected from the Dutch (25) and Francophone (15) electoral colleges.
Of the Flemish parties, the alliance of CD&V/N-VA party received an increased share of the vote from the previous election, held in 2003. The CD&V/N-VA list was headed by Yves Leterme, and became the largest political formation in Belgium, thus leading the coalition talks for a new government. Vlaams Belang gained a little bit compared to the previous election, but lost one seat as a result of the electoral system. Green! was able to return to parliament and newcomers List Dedecker surprised most by immediately grabbing six seats, including one in the Senate. Prime minister Guy Verhofstadt's "purple coalition," consisting of his Open VLD alliance list and SP.A/SPIRIT, was punished in the election, with the SP.A/SPIRIT alliance losing somewhat more than Verhofstadt's Open VLD alliance. The day after the election, Verhofstadt handed in the resignation of his government to King Albert II. SP.A leader Johan Vande Lanotte resigned from his leadership position as well that day.
The Francophone situation did not mirror its Flemish counterpart. While Verhofstadt's Open VLD struggled, its Francophone sister party Mouvement Réformateur managed to defeat the long-dominant Parti Socialiste (PS), although the PS remained strong in Hainaut and Liège. The Cdh brought in a positive result as well, but the biggest gains were for the environmentalist party Ecolo.
The overall outcome of the elections was that the liberal fraction (MR, VLD) became the largest group in parliament with, followed by the Christian Democrats (CD&V, Cdh) and N-VA with 40 seats. The electoral alliance between the Flemish CD&V and N-VA parties became the biggest single parliamentary grouping (25 seats for CD&V and 5 for N-VA).
King Albert II then turned to the Belgian Senator Yves Leterme leader of the Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams Party (CD&V) (Christian Democratic and Flemish) to form the new Government. CD&V is a Belgian political party, formerly called Christelijke Volkspartij (CVP) (Christian People's Party). It is a centrist Flemish, Christian Democratic party, with historic ties to both labour unionism (ACV) and corporative organization as Unizo and the Farmer's League.
Forming the new Government has been anything but easy. Before looking at the events surrounding the formation let's examine the normal conventions for formation of the Belgium Government.
Conventions of formation
After a federal election, the process of government formation starts. This process is based on constitutional convention rather than written law and generally consists of two stages: information and formation. The King consults the Presidents of the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate and a number of prominent politicians in order to discuss the election results. Following these meetings, an informateur is appointed.
The informateur has the task of exploring the various possibilities for the new Federal Government and examining which parties can form a majority in the Federal Parliament. He also meets with prominent people in the socio-economic field to learn their views on the policy that the new Federal Government should conduct. The informateur then reports to the King and advises him about the appointment of the formateur. However, the King can also decide to appoint a second informateur or appoint a royal mediator.
The formateur is appointed by the King on the basis of the informateur's report. The task of the formateur is to form a new government coalition and lead the negotiations about the government agreement and the composition of the government. If these negotiations succeed, the formateur presents a new Federal Government to the King. Traditionally, the formateur is the prospective Prime Minister.
Now let's examine the various attempts to form a Government.
Information round (June 13 - July 4)
In Flanders, the ruling purple coalition (the liberal VLD and the socialist SP.a) lost most seats, while the electoral cartel CD&V/N-VA, with an electoral program that emphasised the need of a large reform of the Belgian state, was the list that gained most seats, In French-speaking Belgium, the liberal party MR became the largest party and replaced for the first time in decades the PS as the dominant party.
Right after the elections and before he was appointed informateur, Reynders called the fact that the PS was no longer the largest francophone party "a constitutional reform on its own". On 13 June 2007, King Albert II appointed MR leader Didier Reynders informateur, (someone who assesses the possibilities for government coalitions). Prior to his appointment, in his position as party leader, Reynders had indicated his preference for a coalition of Christian Democratic parties CD&V (Flanders) and cdH (Wallonia) and liberal parties MR (Wallonia) and Open VLD (Flanders).
The CD&V/N-VA caused a minor controversy when they immediately agreed with Reynders to stall the constitutional reform until after the coinciding regional and European elections of 2009. Reynders argued that he could not allow to devolve more powers to the Walloon regional government where the PS was still the dominant party.
Reynders presented his final report to the King on 4 July 2007. The title of his report is Develop, bring together and protect and has 170 pages. It includes a list of the record-breaking 450 persons he talked with as informateur and contains an inventory of their views. Reynders talked with, among others, Guy Quaden, the Governor of the National Bank of Belgium, Joaquin Almunia, the European Commissioner for Economic & Financial Affairs, Herman De Croo and Anne-Marie Lizin, the leaders of the trade unions and employers' organisations and several senior civil servants.
Mediation round (July 5 - July 15)
Following the informateur's report, King Albert II on July 5 asked former Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene to accept a "mediation and negotiation assignment" in order to prepare the ground for the formateur and to look into the possibility of a sixth state reform. Dehaene reached the conclusion that only an orange-blue coalition with CD&V/N-VA, Open Vld, MR and CDH is viable.
Initially Dehaene stated that there should be a formateur by July 21, the Belgian national holiday, but he ended his assignment prematurely on Sunday July 15, one week before the July 21 deadline. In an announcement the former mediator said that the four orange-blue parties will accept an invitation to coalition talks, but that this "doesn't mean that all obstacles have been removed, far from it!"
Formation round (July 15 - August 23)
The King then appointed Yves Leterme as formateur on Sunday July 15 with the task of forming a new government coalition after Jean-Luc Dehaene was relieved from his task as mediator and negotiator. On his first day as formateur, Yves Leterme met with outgoing Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt (Open Vld), the new President of the Chamber of Representatives, Herman Van Rompuy (CD&V), and the new President of the Senate, Armand De Decker (MR). The following day, Tuesday July 17, Yves Leterme received the presidents of the orange-blue parties: Jo Vandeurzen (CD&V), Bart De Wever (N-VA), Didier Reynders (MR), Bart Somers (Open Vld) en Joëlle Milquet (cdH).
On Monday July 23, Formateur Leterme presented his formation memorandum called The Power Of People - Turning Challenges Into Opportunities Together. A formation memorandum forms the basis for the real negotiations. The memorandum contained 80 pages and 9 chapters about various issues, however, it did not contain a separate chapter on constitutional reform and devolution. In his memorandum, the formateur proposed to lower income taxes on lower and median incomes, change the system of unemployment benefits and expand parental leave. He also wanted to keep several nuclear power stations open longer, build 1,500 additional prison cells and establish an emergency budget for the FPS Justice in order to hire more people. The formateur didn't want a collective regularisation of illegal aliens, but proposed instead to establish just and clear criteria to allow regularisation in individual cases.
Due to differences in view with regards to constitutional reform between the Flemish and Francophone parties, the coalition talks at Valley of the Duchess proceeded with much difficulty and communautary tensions reached a high on Thursday August 16. Negotiator for CDH Francis Delpérée described the situation with the following words: "Il y a un parfum de crise" (English: There is a perfume of crisis). Formal negotiations were temporarily suspended on Friday August 17, following a meeting between the King and the formateur, in order to allow the King to conduct a series of political consultations. It was the third time since he was appointed formateur that Leterme reported to the King on the progress of the coalition talks. This move was heavily criticised by Johan Vande Lanotte, the outgoing chairman of the Flemish socialist party SP.A and a professor in constitutional law, who accused the parties involved in the coalition talks of forcing the King, who is supposed to remain impartial, to play a political role.
On the same evening, the King received Jo Vandeurzen, the CD&V chairman, and Didier Reynders, the chairman of the MR. The next day the King received the chairpersons of the two other orange-blue parties, Bart Somers (Open Vld) and Joëlle Milquet (CDH), in order to attempt to defuse the tensions. The King didn't receive the chairmen of the N-VA and the FDF, however, Bart De Wever (N-VA) reportedly did receive an exploratory phone call from the Royal Palace. During the weekend, there also were informal consultations between all parties involved in the coalition talks and the formateur.
On Sunday August 19, formateur Yves Leterme was summoned to the King to discuss his consultations. Afterwards, the King asked him to resume his tasks as formateur, however, the King also asked Leterme to make new political contacts before resuming the negotiations. Upon the further failure of the negotiations, on August 23 Leterme resigned as formateur.
Consultations by the king (August 23 - August 29)
Following Yves Leterme's resignation, King Albert asked Didier Reynders, the chairman of the Francophone liberal party MR and erstwhile informateur, to try and find a way out of the impasse. At first, the Vlaamse Radio- en Televisieomroep (VRT) reported that Philippe Maystadt or Melchior Wathelet would probably take over, either as informateur or as royal mediator. The Flemish parties feel it's up to a a member of CDH to take an initiative, however, the CDH wants a Flemish politician to be involved in the mediation efforts as well. It was later reported that, according to observers, King Albert will probably ask Raymond Langendries (CDH) and Herman De Croo (Open Vld) to mediate. On August 24, a survey conducted by VTM showed that 45.8% of the 1300 Flemings polled wanted that Flanders declared itself independent and that 54.2% opposed such an action. The same survey showed that 58% of the respondents thought that the state reform is worth a crisis. 72% could not understand the French-speaking opposition. Additionally, 53% thought that Milquet was to blame for the crisis and 15% thought that Leterme was to blame.
On August 25, the King received Herman Van Rompuy (CD&V), President of the Chamber of Representatives and Armand De Decker (MR), President of the Senate, and on August 27 the Royal Palace announced that the King will receive several ministers of State to discuss the political crisis. It is suggested by De Standaard that the King will not appoint the duo Langendries and De Croo because they were already named too much in the media which caused several politicians, such as Hendrik Bogaert (CD&V) and Bart de Wever (N-VA), to object or criticize such a choice. The Open VLD also held a press conference in which Bart Somers called "the remarks about De Croo inconvenient and unseen". He also said that the problem of the electoral district Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde should be tackled before all other issues, something which is regarded by the VRT as a direct criticism on Yves Leterme because Leterme did not mention this problem once when he was formateur. Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel De Gucht, who is a negotiator for Open VLD in the coalition talks, described the government formation as "surrealistic" and added: "Ceci n'est pas une formation".
Jean-Luc Dehaene, Wilfried Martens and Philippe Moureaux were the first ministers of State to be received by the King. A photographer took a picture of a document Dehaene had with him when he arrived at the palace. The document reportedly stated that the state reform should not be an issue during the formation whereas the issue of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde should be included in a coalition agreement, and that all elections (federal, regional and European) should coincide in 2009. On Tuesday August 28, King Albert received Willy Claes (SP.A), Gérard Deprez (MR), Jos Geysels (Groen!), Philippe Busquin (PS), Charles-Ferdinand Nothomb (CDH) and José Daras (Ecolo). The following day, the King received three more ministers of State: Raymond Langendries (CDH), Herman De Croo (Open VLD) and Louis Michel (MR).
Explorative round (August 29 - present)
Herman Van Rompuy starts his mission
Following the consultations with a number of ministers of State, King Albert received Herman Van Rompuy (CD&V), the current President of the Chamber of Representatives, whom the King charged with an exploratory mission in order to find a solution to the political crisis. Van Rompuy was considered by both Flemish and French-speaking parties and newspapers as a good choice. He met on August 30 with the presidents of several parties of the orange-blue coalition, in particular Jo Vandeurzen (CD&V), Bart de Wever (N-VA), Bart Somers (Open VLD) and Jöelle Milquet (CDH). On August 31, he met with presidents Didier Reynders (MR), Olivier Maingain (FDF) and Jean-Michel Javaux (Ecolo). The content of the discussions is unknown, as Van Rompuy wants to talk and negotiate in all discreteness. It was noticed by De Standaard that Van Rompuy did not talk with a member of the PS, which could mean that he wants to achieve the required 2/3 majority for a constitutional reform with the ecologists (Ecolo on the French-speaking side) and not with the PS.
Events in the meanwhile
In the meanwhile, on August 30, the Walloon government held their first meeting since the summer holidays. Rudy Demotte (PS), the minister-president of the Walloon government criticized the long duration of the government formation and was sceptical about whether Van Rompuy would be able to solve the crisis. He also said that he was waiting for formation proposals. On August 31, Milquet said that the instiutional reform was less important than other topics and that all French-speaking parties should formulate a common strategy. She also expressed her wish to replace the current "confrontational federalism" with a modern "cooperative federalism". The Vlaams Belang said at the same time in an international press meeting that the formation crisis is again an example that Belgium as a state does not function and that the time has come to declare Flemish independence. On September 1, the Flemish newspaper De Standaard devoted an issue to the question whether or not a Flemish secession is realistic and viable. Gérard Deprez (MCC, a part of the MR just like the FDF) criticized Maingain's (FDF) demand for the territorial expansion of the region of Brussels to several Flemish towns in return for the split of the electoral district BHV. Deprez said in La Libre Belgique that "Maingain acts like the Inquisition and excommunicates everyone that does not share his dogmas".
On September 2, during De Gordel, an annual Flemish cycling event with a strong political undertone in the periphery of Brussels, Eric Van Rompuy (member of the CD&V and the brother of explorateur Herman) and Bart de Wever (N-VA) emphasized that this should be the last De Gordel in which the problem of BHV is not solved. Flemish minister Geert Bourgeois (N-VA) also stated that the Flemish majority in the newly elected parliament should urgently solve the problem unilaterally (i.e. without the consent of the French speaking parties and thus without any offers). Other politicians, such as Flemish minister-president Kris Peeters (CD&V) and federal minister of Internal Affairs Patrick Dewael (Open VLD) participated in the event, but did not comment on BHV. Prominent absentees were Yves Leterme and Guy Verhofstadt.
No participation of Ecolo
In the meanwhile, speculation about the participation of Ecolo, the French-speaking ecologist party, in the orange-blue coalition increased. Herman Van Rompuy tried to obtain the support of Ecolo for the coalition to address a wish of the left-winged CDH as the latter party wanted to have a left-wing partner in the centre-right coalition.
On September 3, Ecolo said that if it participated in a coalition, three conditions had to be fulfilled. First of all, the party said that it had a problem with the separatist N-VA and added that the coalition had to chose between N-VA or Ecolo. A coalition without the N-VA would "respect the different communities" of Belgium. Secondly, Groen!, the Flemish ecologists have to be part of the coalition as well. Thirdly, formation negotiations had to be redone in order to give the problem of climate a central place in the coalition program.
CD&V/N-VA said that Ecolo's demands could not "be taken seriously" because the CD&V without the N-VA is unthinkable. They also said that the presence of N-VA was not a problem, but that the problem is the unreasonableness of the French speaking parties to negotiate about the Flemish demands. Groen! said that it was unwilling to participate in a coalition in which is not necessary to obtain a majority in parliament. The need to redo the negotiations also meant that the agreement between the partners about the prolonged existence of several nuclear power plants had to be reconsidered.
Given this very complex and seemingly unworkable situation, news media and talk on street are now openly speaking about the collapse of Belgium into two independent states within the EU or even alliance/incorporation of Wallonia into France and Flanders back into the Netherlands.
Yesterday's AP article sums it up quite well:
Three months after elections, Belgium still lacks a government. Is Belgium's end ear?
2007-09-04 14:35:04 -
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - In a hoax that sent panic through the nation, a Belgian TV station reported last year that the Dutch-speaking half of the country had declared independence and the king and queen had fled.
Now, a notion that was once a fantasy of fringe politicians is suddenly on everybody's lips: Is Belgium
about to come an end
Almost three months after elections, Belgium has no government, efforts to form one are on hold, and unity appeals by King Albert II have been ignored _ eroding the prestige of a monarchy often hailed as the glue holding this bilingual nation of 10.5 million together.
Such is the deadlock between Dutch and French-speaking parties over how to form the next government that mainstream politicians and media are now openly airing the view that Belgium's linguistic camps may be better off divorcing.
«I don't want the end of Belgium, but I fear it will happen,» says Gerard Deprez, a former Christian Democratic leader from French-speaking Wallonia.
Elio di Rupo, the Francophone Socialist leader, says the danger of Belgium's disintegration «is greater now than it was on June 10» _ when elections triggered the protracted haggling over forming the government.
In the June 10 ballot, Christian Democrats and Liberals won 81 of the 150 parliamentary seats and agreed to form a coalition. But the composition of the government has been stalled due to bickering over Flemish demands for more autonomy and the redrawing a bilingual Brussels-area voting district.
Belgium's 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones south have enjoyed broad self-rule since the 1980s; only Brussels is officially a bilingual region.
Many Flemish grouse their wealthier, service-based economy subsidizes Wallonia. Dutch-speakers view the Francophones' dilapidated cities and 14 percent unemployment _ double their rate _ as the legacy of hardline Socialist rule
Dutch-speakers are demanding autonomy in health care, justice and transport _ some of the last bastions of central control from Brussels. Many feel the next logical step would be full independence.
«Living together in one country is impossible if year after year the minority prevents the majority to realize its most important desires,» Het Laatste Nieuws, Belgium's largest daily, argued recently.
Seeing politicians «at each other's throats» in linguistic spats makes Belgians believe divorce is possible, says Jos Geysels, a commentator said in the daily De Morgen.
Chris Peeters, an Antwerp resident, sees widespread support for Flemish independence «because all the difficulties we have had over the last 10 years in Belgium ... are coming from the French part. So it would be a solution for Belgium to split apart.
A recent VTM television network poll found 46 percent of Flemings favoring independence _ the highest level in years due to the linguistic political sniping.
Among parties, independence is an official goal only of the far-right Flemish Interest party but its growing popularity _ it won 17 seats in the June voting _ has radicalized even mainstream Flemish parties. There is no comparable Francophone movement.
The daily De Standaard recently devoted several pages to the practical details of shutting down Belgium. Given its healthy economy, it said, Flanders could easily join the EU but divvying up national icons such as the Royal Library or the city of Brussels would be difficult.
The demise of Belgium would bring this country full circle.
In 1912, Jules Destree, a Francophone Socialist, wrote King Albert I a letter saying his nation _ made independent by the Netherlands in 1830 _ was an artificial nation with no regard for reality on the ground.
Flemings and Walloons are complete opposites, Destree argued.
«What excites one, leaves the other stone-cold ... The Walloon belongs to the Latin civilization, the Fleming to the Germanic culture. We have in Belgium Walloons and Flemings. There are no Belgians, sire.