– February 25, 2008 Belgian lawmakers forge tentative agreement, ending nearly eight month political crisis
– Interim Prime Minister Guy Verofstadt set to step down on March 20, 2008
– Christian Democrat Yves Leterme prepares to lead country
– Tentative agreement ends crisis; questions remain concerning future outcome
On February 25, 2008, Belgian political parties representing Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia forged a tentative agreement, thus ending a nearly eight month political crisis. Following interminable negotiations, a committee of Belgian elder statesmen, to include Flemish Christian Democrat and likely future prime minister, Yves Leterme, struck an agreement enabling the transfer of contentious powers over industrial policy, housing, and agriculture to the regions.
Under the current leadership of Interim Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the ethnically divided country has remained politically and economically stagnant due to an ongoing political crisis. The crisis began when Dutch-speaker and separatist Leterme topped the poll in the country’s national parliamentary elections in June 2007. Leterme’s win led to fierce concerns his strong advocacy towards Belgium’s Dutch-speaking and markedly more prosperous Flanders region, would lead to an independent Flanders state and the subsequent economic depression of French-speaking Wallonia.
Facing an uphill battle to bring the two sides together, Belgian King Albert II reappointed Verhofstadt in December 2007. Following nearly eight months of interim leadership, Verhofstadt, who has led the country since 1999, plans to step down as interim PM in March 2008, making way for Leterme.
The tentative power-sharing agreement is a quick fix for the country. However, complications, including Leterme’s recent hospitalization, could prove dire.
Finally, short of a substantial change in the mindset of separatist Flemish leaders, it will likely be a long, difficult road ahead as a reported 43 percent of the country’s Dutch-speaking population continues to rally for an independent Dutch Flanders state. To this end, we believe the February 2008 agreement will not solve Belgium’s political crisis, but rather postpone it.
Parties Reach Agreement
On February 25, 2008, Belgium’s elder statesmen finally forged a tentative agreement. Following negotiations lasting into the early morning hours, a committee struck an agreement that foresees the transfer of powers over industrial policy, agriculture, and housing. Following a first draft of intended reforms, the agreement involves the eventual handover of minor federal powers, for instance control over rental legislation, childcare, and decision-making authority over large commercial enterprise zoning regulations to the provinces. It would also see 65 million euros earmarked to the Brussels capital region, a large portion of which would be employed to improve public transportation within the de facto EU capital. Finally, the agreement means the already-delayed 2008 budget can be drawn up.
In recent decades, Belgium’s two distinct regions, Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, have become increasing separate. Differences stem from marked disparities in economic livelihoods. Specifically, the Francophone south has suffered economic hardship as a result of a slow demand in the global market for industrialized goods, while conversely Dutch-speaking Flanders has flourished due to increased demands in the service sector. Despite the country’s historic power-sharing system, differences between Wallonia and Flanders have increased dramatically, leading to the eventual calls for an independent Flanders state.
Agreement is Viable Step, Not a Permanent Solution
As we previously reported, we believe reconciliation is the best outcome for all interested parties because it will ensure the continuance of a strong unified economy, as well as the survival of Belgium’s diverse population and distinct culture (Previous Report).
However, signs of increasing tensions and dissatisfaction between the two populations are evident throughout the country. Flanders residents are angered over increased levels of subsidization due to the effects of high unemployment in the Francophone south, while Walloons continue to fight for their place in Belgium’s political and cultural make up. Should Flanders gain independence, it would be among the wealthiest nations in the European Union, while French-speaking Wallonia would become one of the poorest.
The February 2008 agreement is a viable step in the right direction for the country. However, the agreement should not be considered a permanent solution to Belgium’s ongoing identity crisis. Complications to the agreement, including Leterme’s recent hospitalization due to internal bleeding of the digestive system, as well as persistent calls for an independent Flanders state, could prove dire. Short of a substantial change in the mindset of separatist Flemish leaders, it will likely be a long and difficult road ahead as a reported 43 percent of the country’s Dutch-speaking population continues to rally for independence.
Finally, we believe the February 2008 agreement will not solve Belgium’s political crisis, but rather postpone it. Dutch-speaking parties, representing approximately 60 percent of the country’s population, welcomed the accord. However, the reforms fall short of the powers they seek for the Flanders region. To this end, we believe the tentative agreement may lead to further fractioning among nationalist Flanders residents angered by Leterme’s perceived decision to yield to elder statesmen and cede earlier demands.