Belgium political crisis hits new low


A Belgian government mediator, tasked with building consensus between the country's different linguistic groups, stepped down yesterday (6 January), the Royal Palace said, increasing the chances of a new election.

Flemish Social Democrat Johan Vande Lanotte was appointed to look for common ground between seven parties from Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia after direct talks to form a government failed in October. But the two largest Flemish parties, N-VA and CD&V, on Wednesday evening rejected his proposal.

"There is an old English saying 'you can take a horse to the water but you can't force it to drink'," Vande Lanotte told a news conference on Thursday. "One day the politicians will have to take that step in the interests of the prosperity of our country."

Belgium has been governed by an interim cabinet for more than 200 days, fuelling concerns in financial markets over its ability to deal with its large public debt.

The Belgian/German 10-year bond yield spread widened to 113 basis points, up around 12 bps from levels seen at Wednesday's European settlement.

The spread reached a euro-lifetime high of around 150 bps in late November when a European Union/IMF bailout for Ireland failed to calm escalating eurozone sovereign debt concerns and investors ditched bonds from across the region.

Analysts now believe that elections are a distinct possibility in order to try to break the deadlock.

"If nothing else is possible, you have to vote in a democracy. It's the Control+Alt+Delete of the political process," Professor Carl Devos at Ghent University told Reuters.

"It is not a structural solution to the problem but sometimes things improve afterwards."

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

The French-speaking press today blasted the position of Flemish parties CD&V and N-VA, which led to the collapse of the mediation by Vande Lanotte.

The daily La Dernière Heure published two empty pages accompanied by a short comment by journalist Stéphane Tassin. He wrote:

"These pages are empty because of the general feeling of being fed up. The never-ending circus still goes on. Faced with the incapacity of negotiators to conclude an agreement after 207 days, faced with sterile statements, faced with secret meetings, faced with a lack of confidence, faced with this monumental waste, we decided that there is nothing more to say."

The daily Le Soir wrote: "CD&V and N-VA have dared: they said neen. Because the reading is unanimous, this doesn't mean neen maar (no, however), is a 'no full-stop'. Njet, nichevo, nada. So chaos again," according to Béatrice Delvaux, chief editor of the biggest Belgian French-speaking daily.

She further wrote: "Let's remind that it was expected from the seven parties to sit down again around the table to negotiate, amend, fine-tune a proposed text. Not saying 'yes' at this stage, with all the progress made, is simply, excuse my vocabulary, pathetic. And deeply irresponsible."

The Flemish press is also critical, according to a press review by RTBF.

In Het Laatste Nieuws journalist Luc Vanderkelen targets CD&V, which he calls "the party which had to swallow its pride" as it still finds it difficult to accept that it is no longer the biggest party in Flanders. He also says it is deeply divided internally.

In any case, how viable can a coalition be if its partners are not ready to sit around the same table, he asks.

"There is only one solution: that the markets punish Belgium harshly. Then we would really have reasons to cry, but we are almost hoping for this moment," Vanderkelen concludes.

"It's hopeless," writes Yves De Smet in De Morgen. "Only in the country of surrealism you can break up negotiations, for instance, on the number of entries and exits on the Brussels ring road. The incapacity of CD&V and of N-VA to reach a compromise makes the situation desperate," he writes.

Only Flemish dailies De Standaard, Belang Van Limburg and Gazet Van Antwerpen, close to CD&V and of N-VA, placed the blame on French-speaking parties.

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a nationalist party, secured a sweeping victory in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium in national elections held on 13 June, paving the way for more powers to be delegated to the regions in the country that hosts the EU institutions.

Flemish nationalist gains were matched by a large victory for the socialists in French-speaking Wallonia, with both parties expected to spearhead government coalition talks.

The early elections were triggered after Flemish liberal party Open-VLD decided to leave the government over a dispute between French- and Dutch-speaking parties regarding electoral boundaries surrounding the capital, Brussels..

Belgian King Albert II told Prime Minister Yves Leterme to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government was formed.

In spite of this major political crisis, Belgium rather successfully completed its term as rotating EU presidency for the second half of 2010.

  • 9 Jan.: King to meet Vande Lanotte again and make public his decision.

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