Karel De Gucht, the Belgian interim minister of Foreign Affairs, has urged all Belgium’s ambassadors abroad to “take initiatives to promote a positive image of Belgium.” In a confidential memo Mr. De Gucht urges the ambassadors to take “informal” and “discrete” initiatives which must “result in positive radio and television broadcasts or newspaper articles” in the foreign media. He emphasized, however, that the ambassadors should avoid press conferences – one never knows what journalists might ask – and other “spectacular initiatives” because these might have “the opposite effect.”
The memo instructs the ambassadors to counter the negative image created by the political crisis in Belgium. They are to assure their foreign contacts that it is not unusual for Belgian politicians to take a very long time to put together a government coalition. The ambassadors are also to persuade the international media that the political crisis in Belgium will not affect the country’s international obligations and economic stability.
Mr. De Gucht is a member of the cabinet led by interim Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. Belgium’s so-called “interim government” was formed on 21 December. It will run the country until next Easter (23 March) at the latest, by which time the Belgian politicians are to have reached an agreement on a constitutional reform of the multinational federal kingdom of Belgium. The Belgian media, however, are sceptical about the chances of Yves Leterme, the interim minister of constitutional reform, to reach such an agreement in the following 66 days. Mr. Leterme’s previous efforts to reach an agreement took 193 days, or more than six months, and led to no result at all.
Belgium is a multinational state which began to unravel on 10 June last year, when the country’s general elections resulted in heavy losses for Mr. Verhofstadt’s outgoing coalition of Liberals and Socialists.
Belgium has 10.5 million inhabitants. It consists of 60% Dutch-speaking (free market oriented) Flemings, living in Flanders, the northern half of the country, and 40% (predominantly Socialist) Francophones in the southern part, Wallonia, and in the capital Brussels, which was Dutch-speaking until the middle of the last century but is nowadays a French-speaking enclave within Flanders. Over half the Brussels population is of foreign origin – many of them of North African extraction.
Since its establishment in 1830-31 Belgium has been dominated by the Francophone minority, to whom the Belgian Constitution guarantees 50% of the government positions.
Apart from the political overrepresentation which Wallonia enjoys it is also showered with welfare subsidies from free market oriented Flanders. Hence it is hardly surprising that the Belgian Francophones can – and do – veto any Flemish proposal to reform the welfare system. Flanders is no longer willing to accept the status quo, but the Walloons refuse to give up power. This has resulted in the total political stalemate in the bipolar Belgian state.
In Flanders, last June’s elections were lost by the Flemish Liberals of Mr. Verhofstadt and by the Flemish Socialists. Both parties, perceived as defenders of the Belgian status quo and the predominance of Wallonia, received a severe beating. The elections were won by the Flemish Christian-Democrats of Mr. Leterme, who promised his voters greater autonomy for Flanders within Belgium, and by Flemish secessionist parties that want to dissolve the Belgian federation.
For more than six months Mr. Leterme tried to reach a coalition agreement with the intransigent politicians from Wallonia, who remained unwilling to recognize the Flemish voters’ verdict. As a result the outgoing Verhofstadt cabinet, though having lost its majority in Parliament, was forced to stay on as a caretaker government. As the competences of the latter are constitutionally restricted, the Belgian government was not able to initiate new policies, take budgetary decisions or present European Union directives to the Belgian Parliament for implementation in Belgium.
Belgium’s ungovernability became problematic after six months because the caretaker government could not initiate the ratification process of the European Constitutional Treaty, which was signed on 13 December 2007 in Lisbon on Belgium’s behalf by Mr Verhofstadt.
Consequently, last December, the Belgian King Albert II reinstalled Mr. Verhofstadt, the loser of the June elections, as the new Prime Minister because he is the only Flemish politician who is acceptable to the Walloon hardliners. Mr Leterme was pressured by the King and the European authorities to make a deal with Mr Verhofstadt. On 21 December the Christian-Democrat leader agreed to become Vice Prime Minister and Minister of the Budget and of Constitutional Reform on condition that Mr. Verhofstadt steps down in his favour by Easter.
Mr. Verhofstadt’s “Christmas to Easter” interim cabinet has a two third majority of 101 of the 150 seats in the Belgian Federal Chamber of Representatives. The coalition consists of Mr. Verhofstadt’s Flemish Liberal Party, Mr. Leterme’s Flemish Christian-Democrat Party, the Walloon Liberal Party, the Walloon Humanist Party and the Walloon Socialist Party. The interim government is predominantly Walloon, backed by 53 Walloon seats (out of a total of 62 French-speaking Representatives) and 48 Flemish seats (out of a Flemish total of 88 Representatives).
Mr. Verhofstadt’s task is to buy time for Mr. Leterme, so that the latter still has time until Easter to reach an agreement with the Walloon politicians. Many observers, however, doubt that Mr. Leterme will be able to overcome the Walloon’s intransigence in the next 66 days. They doubt that he will be able to succeed in the next two months where he failed in the 193 days between 10 June and 21 December last year. Indeed, there are no indications that the Walloon politicians, who vetoed all Mr. Leterme’s proposals for six months, will change their attitude in the coming weeks. Either Mr. Leterme backs down and renounces his election promises for greater Flemish autonomy, which won him last June’s elections, or the Belgian political crisis resumes in all earnest after Easter.
Interim Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, a member of Mr. Verhofstadt’s Flemish Liberals, who was also Foreign Minister in the previous Verhofstadt cabinet, writes in his confidential memorandum to the ambassadors that they are to assure the international media that the interim cabinet “is able to govern in a normal way.” They are also to declare that the crisis has been beneficial for Belgium: “The long period of negotiations led to an agreement last December about the principle that further changes are to be made with regard to our constitutional framework.”
The ambassadors are also to convey the message that long coalition negotiations are not unusual in Belgium. However, the 193 days which elapsed between last year’s general elections on 10 June and the formation of an “interim government” on 21 December constituted a historical record in Belgium, while the crisis is merely simmering to erupt again by Easter.
In Mr. De Gucht’s memorandum the Belgian diplomats are instructed to tell their international contacts
“that our country has come through a difficult period, but has confidence in the future. The population in the north and the south clearly do not want to split up the country. The Belgian model of consensus dialogue has known some difficult moments in the past months, but has once again displayed its capacities and creativity. We are confident that this consensus model will prove its worth also in the coming months.”
Mr. De Gucht is intelligent enough to know that this is mere propaganda. Barely a week after the formation of the interim government, on 29 December, he himself told the Brussels newspaper De Morgen that the Belgian stalemate has not been solved.
“Do you really think the Walloons are worried, that they believe they have to agree to a major constitutional reform by Easter? I don’t believe it at all.”
One thing the ambassadors should not do when spinning their “positive” stories about Belgium in the international press is refer to Mr. De Gucht’s own declarations in the Belgian press…
A Throne in Brussels: Britain, the Saxe-Coburgs and the Belgianisation of Europe
Author: Paul Belien
More on Belgium’s political crisis here:
The Influence of the Immigrant Vote on Belgian Politics, 26 June 2007
EU: The Model is Collapsing. Brussels Calls upon King for Help, 18 August 2007
After Belgium: Will Flanders and the Netherlands Reunite? 23 August 2007
Could Sarkozy Solve Belgium’s Crisis? 3 September 2007
Even Flemish Muslims Want to Separate from the Walloons, 6 September 2007
Crisis in Belgium: If Flanders Secedes Wallonia Disintegrates, 9 September 2007
After Belgium: Europe’s New Map, 13 September 2007
Thrembling Thrones in Brussels, 18 September 2007
Save Belgium: Postmodernists to the Rescue, 28 September 2007
Yves Leterme Is Too Soft. Will Flanders Join EFTA? 1 October 2007
Barroso and Bilderberg to the Rescue of Belgium, 7 October 2007
Information and Disinformation about Belgium, 6 November 2007
Belgium Will Survive for Now, but Not for Long, 7 November 2007
Belgium Scuppers Constitution? Sadly Hoping Won't Make It Happen, 8 November 2007
Independence for Flanders: Good for Democracy, Good for Europe, 29 November 2007
Why the Eurocrats Fear the Belgian Anarchy, 30 November 2007
The Brussels Pattern: Elections Have No Consequences, 6 December 2007
Brussels: What the People Vote Down, the Elite Brings Back, 10 December 2007
A Christmas Present for the Belgians: The Loser’s Return, 19 December 2007
Background articles explaining Belgium:
A City Without Water Is A City Without A Soul, 28 June 2005
How Flanders Helped Shape Freedom in America, 11 July 2005
The Dark Roots of the EU, 5 December 2005
Nations Under Construction: Defining Artificial States, 13 June 2006
Why Is the Vlaams Belang So Popular? 13 February 2007
Belgium, the EU’s Destiny. The End of Nothingness, 25 August 2007