March 18, 2020 | News | No Comments
At just the moment that the leaders of Germany and France, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, were concluding their agreement as to what to tell all the other 15 national governments in the eurozone to do, the Belgian political establishment concluded its 18 months of squabbling and formed a federal government.
The final push came from the bond markets, which had threatened to regard Belgian government debt with the same suspicion that they had previously applied to that of Greece, Portugal and Italy. A credit-rating downgrade injected new life into the stalled negotiations: politicians of various hues rushed to put a government in place – so that it could receive orders from the Merkel-Sarkozy duo.
I feel a pang of regret for the passing of the caretaker government of Yves Leterme, who has now been liberated from his prime ministerial duties to take up a post as deputy secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). For many months now Leterme has been a hanger-on at meetings of the European Council – the cocktail-party guest whom everyone thinks departed long ago, but who is found loitering in an antechamber, making his excuses and asking if his taxi has arrived. Well, it has now.
But it is not simply the restless, ill-at-ease demeanour of Leterme that I will miss. Familiarity does not always breed contempt: I had grown almost fond of this caretaker government, which was reconciled to its impotence. Across Europe, there are national governments that still feel obliged to maintain a pretence that they are in control of events (the most extreme example is Sarkozy, whose chutzpah fits him well for a game of bluff and counter-bluff). But the Belgian caretaker government has been able to dispense with such deceit, admitting to its limitations, several of which were, after all, laid down in the constitution.
In a way, Leterme’s caretaker government was a forerunner of the governments of technocrats that have been installed in Greece and Italy. Although, the politicians remained in place, and the prime minister was a political leader rather than a central banker or professor, the effect was very similar because the politicians had to concentrate on the essential business of keeping the functions of the state in motion.
Sadly, this experiment in post-modern governance has been brought to an end by the impatience of the bond markets. Now Belgium returns to politics-as-usual, which is to say, an unwieldy coalition government attempting to govern a divided country in which the two main linguistic groups appear to have less and less in common.
Appearances can, however be deceptive. Countries can divide (and unite) over things other than language. Figures published by the OECD on Monday (5 December) showed that Belgium was one of the few developed countries in which disparities in income had not widened between 1985 and 2008 (France and Hungary were others – and the gap had narrowed in Turkey and Greece). Cynics may doubt the accuracy of figures on Belgian income in a country with such a well-developed black economy, but others will recognise that in some of Belgium’s neighbours the disparities in wealth are widening to levels that are alarming, dangerous and, by the standards of the 20th century, immoral. Belgium is arguably better placed to cope with the consequences of austerity than, for example, the UK or Italy.
The greater disparities of income in the UK are no great surprise. Economic liberalism took hold in the UK, first under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and became the orthodoxy even under their New Labour successors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In Belgium, the centre-right did not embrace economic liberalism with the same enthusiasm. (British distaste for Jean-Luc Dehaene, the then Belgian prime minister, was strong enough to prevent his becoming president of the European Commission in 1995.) This brand of liberalism came late to Belgium, with Guy Verhofstadt’s premierships (1999-2008), and only after he had toned down his rhetoric. Even then, he was further moderated by a coalition that initially included Christian Democrats, socialists and greens.
But the drawn-out negotiations over a new Belgian government suggest that Flemish liberalism is a spent force. The political generation led by Verhofstadt has moved on. He now lives out a political after-life as leader of the liberal MEPs in the European Parliament and his old party rival Karel De Gucht has become a European commissioner, but what they left behind is a mess. Alex De Croo, Verhofstadt’s successor as party leader, pulled his party out of the Leterme II government and precipitated the (inconclusive) 2010 elections. Then, last month, it was he who, by holding out against the formation of a new government, incited the wrath of the bond markets.
On the small stage of Belgian politics, such issues of personal temperament and judgement matter. Belgium’s European counterparts will take heart that the distribution of ministerial posts in the new government favours those positions that matter most to Europe: Steve Vanackere as finance minister, Olivier Chastel as budget minister, and Didier Reynders as foreign minister have experience and judgment. Those receiving instructions from Merkel and Sarkozy will know what they must do.