The Belgian mess (III)

Another little escalation of the pressure in Belgium. Via EuroIntelligence:

The political situation in Belgium is becoming increasingly dramatic. After negotiations have broke down twice, the king asked for a new round of consultations to find a compromise over institutional reforms, possibly the last chance before organising new elections. Many expect that new elections would nothing but radicalise the positions, Le Monde reports. According to polls, the separatist NVA would get more than 30% of the votes in Flanders.

Well, in fact, that’s not many more votes than they have already. One suspects, though, that this 30% figure for Flemish separatism doesn’t convey the main point: a more widespread Flemish view that, short of outright separatism, it’s not time to back down from a tough negotiating stance. The Flemish rejoinder to another Walloon suggestion takes a very predictable form:

French-speaking socialists now evoked a plan B, where Wallonia and Brussels would form a new Belgium. The Flemish response was that if they want to keep the heritage they can also keep the whole of the Belgian debt.

So that’s the Belgian national debt dragged into this increasingly fraught-looking game of chicken. One hopes the players know what they are doing.

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  1. charles 2

    A lot of this debt is held by Flemish institutions. They better think twice what they wish for. Selective default anyone ?

    1. Richard Smith

      The Flemish separatists may be able to offer a choice between

      a) (status quo) propping up Wallonia via transfer payments, and

      b) (assuming a secession) taking on, for Flemish creditors only, the liabilities of the former Belgium.

      Perhaps the numbers *just about* work out; I’d be interested to hear whether locals think about that. If that sort of idea doesn’t work, the secessionists have much, much more of a headwind.

      Discussion of this sort of possibility would be a sign of the next escalation.

      1. kevin de bruxelles

        I think we should expect a heightening of rhetoric and pressure as the politicians prepare a deal behind the scenes.

        The Belgian public debt recently passed the 100% mark but Belgians are great savers and hold most of this debt internally. I would imagine these assets fairly equally distributed among all communities (one friend who knows about these things claims a lot of it is held by aristocratic francophone families). So as you allude to, the best way to spilt the debt would for each entity to only pay the debt held by its citizens while at the same time finding a formula for paying that part of the debt held by foreigners.

        On the very narrow question of whether Flanders is better off keeping their transfer payments and just paying their part of the debt, I think they would be but things are much more complicated than that so I doubt that this would be a deciding issue.

        One main sticking points is some of the suburbs of Brussels (The Bruxelles-Hal-Vilvoorde (BHV) zone) which are administratively ambiguous. Some of these areas (not Brussels though of course) are supposed to be in the Flemish area but French speakers there have special rights (acquired long ago when the system was different)that Flemish people living in Wallonia do not have. If there were to be a split up, these areas would have to go to the Flemish and then the francophones would lose all their special rights in any case. So this talk of splitting up may be a way of hinting to the French speakers there to start taking Flemish lessons! In the end the francophones will lose the BHV battle but I think they want to trade concessions on that subject for something somewhere else in the other negotiations.

        I’m told the real deadline for these negotiations to terminate is in December when next year’s budget is due. If this mess gets into next year then the talk of breakup may be real.

        As for the idea that Brussels would go with Wallonia, all I can say is every francophone in Brussels I ask just laughs at this notion and says no way in hell will Brussels go along with the Walloons. They don’t see it possible to be with the Flemish either so they think Brussels would be its own small entity.

        There may indeed be another round of elections but they will hardly change much. Voting is mandatory here by the way. One possible impact a new election could have is to bring Brussels into the picture. Right now we have the socialists from Walloon negotiating with the N-VA from Flanders. Who is representing Brussels? The Liberals tend to dominate here and I know they are chomping at the bit to get involved in the negotiations. But are there not already too many chefs in the kitchen?

        By the way, I also like Le Monde for information on this subject since they have a certain distance and they also explain all the ins and outs a bit better than the Belgian papers, who assume a lot of knowledge on some of these obscure subjects.

  2. MarcVdb

    At the moment the negotiations in the public eye have stalled. The N-VA leader and elections winner De Wever is on a 10 day clarification mission, from which no one expects much or anything.

    From the N-VA’s point of view, the negotiations were leading to a government with a sizeable (but still insufficient) state reform and a leftwing policy agenda. Given that the biggest Flemish parties are actually rightwing he would have been unable to convince his party to go along with that.

    Probably they are secretly checking if an agreement can be reached when they include the liberals (rightwing in Belgium). That is a long shot, but probably one that has to be tested before building up to new elections.

    There is one other path left to resolve the crisis, which is a radically different approach to the state organisation. Instead of deciding what powers should be transferred to the regions, the approach would be to determine what the federal state should be left with. That approach is labeled clause 35.

    New elections would not be such a bad idea either, provided that the result would be that a state reform can be voted with less than the 7 parties it requires now. Too many cooks spoils the broth.

    The rhetoric about the debt etc is just that: rhetoric. It is a bit like the players shouting “Look, Here!”, while the real action is happening elsewhere.

  3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    How long before we hear from the the Northern League of Italy, Basque separatists, French speakers of Quebec or Southern Californians upset with Sacramento?

    1. Fifi

      Southern Californians upset with Sacramento?

      But of course, there is this little, little detail called water …

  4. Maju

    They should just split the country amicably, as Czech and Slovaks did. The longer it takes the greater the grudges.

    After all Belgium is an artificial state, formed not on linguistic/ethnic identity but on religion, the mother of all evils. You see what happens when religion is used to create false identities in India/Pakistan or in former Yugoslavia.

    The Flemish should join the Netherlands and the Walloons France, with Brussels being kept as independent city state under EU protection. And the king… send him to Congo, where I believe they have some serious grudges with the dynasty.

    “How long before we hear from the (..) Basque separatists”…

    If you don’t hear is because you do not want to know. Today there is another huge demo called at Pamplona.

    1. Karl Trahn

      There are plenty of countries with no ethnic/linguistic/religious identity. I see no reason why this would be necessary in a federal democratic state. Just have a look at Switzerland or Canada.

    1. Kevin de Bruxelles

      That’s what I was thinking as well. The tolerant Prots in the north are starting to have issues with the angry Catholics in the south and adding the Flemish would throw this balance way off.

  5. Alexei McDonald

    Every Dutch person I’ve spoken to about this (a fair few) is quite clear that the Flemish are on their own if Belgium breaks up. They don’t want them under any circumstances – they would just create too much trouble.

    1. Kevin de Bruxelles

      Yes, it’s more likely the Dutch would instead try to give their Brabant and Limburg regions to the new Flemish state. Or at least many Dutch would like to do that. The people in Holland call the inhabitants of these two regions “reserve Belgians” and that’s not meant to be a compliment.

      The only people harsher on the Belgians than the Dutch are the French.

  6. Dchadwick

    As Kevin pointed out, no one is representing Brussels. Very surreal, but surrealism in Belgium should surprise no one. I can only hope that this will change as the interests of Brussels are very different from the two regions.

  7. John Emerson

    “One hopes the players know what they are doing.”

    You do, maybe. My money is on “don’t”. And not just because they’re Belgians.

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