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article imageBelgium has a new government

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Dec 30, 2008 in Politics
After a painful crisis, and a difficult search for a candidate Prime Minister, Belgium has a new government as of a few minutes ago.
I had first put "Shaky news" instead of "Breaking news." Why? Well, because this information, although coming from multiple sources had contradictory elements. One said that the new cabinet would meet the king at 4:15 PM local time (10:15 EST), whereas another said it was going to be at 5:00 PM.
Strangely enough, de Volkskrant, a leading Dutch newspaper, said it was going to be at 5:00 PM, while De Standaard, a leading Dutch-language Belgian newspaper, said -for a while- that it was going to be at 4:15 PM. Not very important? Maybe not. Or maybe it is.
Getting reliable information about Belgian politics is very hard. Although there is, officially, freedom of the press, that freedom is often limited to a freedom before publication, and does not by any stretch of the imagination extend to freedom after publication. I have had the dubious privilege of finding that out myself a number of years ago. As a result, although there is -officially- no censorship, self-censorship is rampant in this surreal country.
That said, word is now that Belgium has indeed a new government at this time. Some members of that government are already known. It is expected that Herman Van Rompuy will be the prime minister. He is also the one who put the cabinet together. In most countries, including Canada, there are lots of candidates for this job. Not so in Belgium. Van Rompuy had to be convinced to take the job. Even though Belgian politicians are no different than others in the sense that they love to have high-profile, high-paying jobs with lots of juicy side-kicks, Belgian politics is so irrational, that people are genuinely afraid of the job.
Who else will be in this government (while it lasts)?
Stefaan De Clerck (from the Catholic CD&V - a centrist party) will be the minister of justice. Guido De Padt from the Open VLD (somewhat comparable to Canada's Tories) will succeed Patrick Dewael (same party) as minister of internal affairs. Patrick Dewael will become speaker of the house of commons.
Stefaan De Clerck already had the job of minister of justice before. He was forced to resign after Marc Dutroux, the guy who was at one time accused of any and all child abduction and child sexual abuse cases in the country, managed to escape from prison.
Inge Vervotte, a trade-unionist who was minister of civil service and state-owned corporations, is resigning. She says to be shocked by the personal price Yves Leterme (previous prime minister) and Jo Vandeurzen (the former minister of justice and institutional reform) have paid for the latest crisis. This crisis was caused by "Fortis-Gate." When Fortis, a large financial institution, collapsed, Yves Leterme wanted to get rid of Maurice Lippens who was the Chairman of the company.
In order to understand why this could be a problem, one must know that Maurice Lippens concocted a take-over of the long-defunct Generale Bankmaatschappij (Belgium's largest bank at the time) in order to prevent ABN-Amro from acquiring it even though they had the better bid by far. The Belgian Royal Family traditionally despises everything that speaks Dutch, and they did not want "their" bank to be taken over by the "filthy Dutch." Lippens said at the time "C'est mon cadeau au roi (it's my git to the king). As a thank-you for his success, Lippens was made a count by then-king Baudouin.
The Belgian public was told at the time that ABN-Amro's takeover bid was a hostile one and that it would result in major job losses. A hoax? Most probably. In any case, soon after the takeover, Fortis began to sack thousands of bank staff, precisely the thing they claimed they would never do.
Very recently, Fortis acquired ABN-Amro, seemingly turning the tables on the affair. Clearly, Fortis wasn't solid enough to do this, and when the financial crisis hit, it sank faster than you can say "Bob's your uncle," your late uncle in this case. Needless to say, Yves Leterme had good reasons to get rid of Maurice Lippens, and plenty of them. Unfortunately, it seems that this very thing has cost him his political head. A parliamentary enquiry is being opened into this case. If I know anything about Belgian politics, my guess is, that the royal family will use any and all influence to blame Yves Leterme for all that went wrong.
In view of all these events, I think that it is quite understandable that Inge Vervotte is so digusted with Belgian politics that she needs to take a break to think it all over.
Eric Van Rompuy, an economist who is also politically active as an MP in the Flemish Parliament, has already promised he would tone down his words for the time being in order to give his brother Herman Van Rompuy a chance to succeed.
Why would he need to do that? Because he is quite vocal in his defense of the Flemish people in this surreal country. When Belgium was created, the powers of the time had overlooked the fact that there was a Flemish (Dutch) majority in the country. Belgian's first king, Leopold 1, wanted nothing to do with them. Because of that, he did not want Brussels, a Flemish city, to be the capital of the country, something he was forced to accept regardless of his feelings. That set the tone, and the Flemish majority has since had a long and difficult fight to be recognized, and to actually gain some educational and political rights. This battle is not over yet, and Eric Van Rompuy is quite vocal in this debate, although he is not a separatist (there are those as well).
Things are indeed evolving. While I was writing this, De Standaard announced that the new government is a fact, and that the first cabinet meeting is planned for 7:00 PM local time tonight (1:00 PM EST).
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