This year’s final conclusion for politics in Belgium is anything but beautiful: it was a year of pandemic, and an associated record number of deaths in this country, compared to the rest of the world. But government formation can also be simply summarized for many in the Rue de la Loi: it took far too long, and ultimately revolved mainly around personal careers.
At the bottom of this article also the wishes of each party chairman for his or her colleagues. These are often a wink or a tease, or, if they are in coalition together, something nice for each other.
The essence: This country got a federal government that did not immediately get many people in politics really enthusiastic.
- More than two years after the Michel I government fell, in December 2018, with De Croo I, a full-fledged government again came in October 2020. For the first time it has a majority, and can submit a budget, for example.
- Elio Di Rupo (PS) can be seen as “visionary”. Already on May 27, 2019, one day after the elections, he proposed a Vivaldi coalition, although it was not called that yet. In the end, it took the Flemish parties, especially Open Vld and CD&V, more than a full year before they could say ‘yes’.
- Last summer, the negotiations between PS and N-VA gained momentum from 11 July. This certainly also proved to be the case for the French-speaking socialists have far-reaching plans for further reform of the country, towards decentralization.
- The role that Open Vld played is remarkable. For months the duo loved Alexander De Croo and Egbert Lachaert every step towards purple-green or Vivaldi against. When Gwendolyn Rutten (Open Vld) was ready at the end of 2019 to make such a coalition, and possibly take the premiership, they kept the door closed, together with Georges-Louis Bouchez (MR).
- Already in December there were extensive contacts between De Croo and N-VA chairman Bart De Wever. The latter was told at a meanwhile very infamous meeting at his headquarters by the duo De Croo-Lachaert at the end of May that Open Vld “did not go for the premiership and wanted purple-yellow”. Lachaert denies the latter on the record in all languages, but sources within your own party confirm the opposite: the N-VA was well taken care of.
- In any case, the facts in those summer weeks all point in the same direction: substantive, socio-economic then, Vivaldi is no more “liberal” coalition agreement than the purple-yellow deal of PS and N-VA. The knot was in the community agreement, of which MR chairman Bouchez on the record stated “that he had stopped that”.
- The fact that the top of the Flemish liberals ultimately opted for the lure of the Sixteen is a reading of the facts that, incidentally, is reflected in various chairpersons of the Vivaldi coalition itself. In front of the screens, they eagerly participate in the “one team” atmosphere, but in reality the same judgment is heard by Socialists, Greens and Christian Democrats. “It had to take another ten months, because then De Croo could finally become prime minister“Says a chairman of the own majority cynically.
- The most important conclusion there is, at the end of 2020, that a number of government partners clearly indicate that this was not the preferred coalition, and that “unfinished business“Remains, especially in the state reform. This applies to CD&V, but just as well, and more importantly, for the PS, the largest partner, with Vooruit in its wake.
- Immediately, after the corona approach, it is the biggest worry for this federal government: are they driving off the road, with the largest partner who is not “full” on board?
On a side note: The Flemish government is stumbling on.
- 2020 was an annus horribilis for the team of Jan Jambon (N-VA). The same coalition partners who must agree Flemish, live at war on a federal level. In the short term, things will no longer work out between N-VA and Open Vld. And the biggest proponent of purple-green cooperation at Open Vld, Bart Somers, is vice-prime minister in that Flemish team. Strange to say the least.
- The answer is: loyal implementation of the coalition agreement. As a basis for cooperation not exactly inspiring.
- In addition, the approach to the corona crisis more than failed: Minister of Welfare Wouter Beke (CD&V) was politically damaged in such a way that recovery will be difficult at all.
- That Belgium literally is number one in the world in terms of number of deaths in relation to the population, is more than painful: it can no longer be swept under the rug “because we count better than other countries”. It is a particularly painful result of a failed approach.
- Where the federal government, with the arrival of a new team, and especially Frank Vandenbroucke (Vooruit), the plate could be wiped clean, that is not the case for Jambon’s team, which incidentally also lost credibility this year.
- The upcoming vaccination campaign and the ongoing issues of properly detecting sources of contamination do not bode well in that area, both for the Flemish and federal governments.
- The tiredness of the population to continue following the same measures leading to social isolation and economic desertification will inevitably increase again in 2021.
The big picture: Economically stormy weather awaits.
- Monetary policy has long ceased to be a competence of one’s own country, but of the European Central Bank. And it has brought us into totally unknown waters, with a very aggressive policy of so-called “quantitative easing“: The massive printing of money, in order to buy up government paper and thus reduce the interest.
- The advantage of this policy is that we will not get into turbulent, unstable water in the short term. But in the long term, the consequences are dangerous: the European economy, like Japan, is threatening to enter the 1990s some kind of zombie state.
- In addition, the European Commission has come out en masse with a rescue package of 750 billion euros. That this happened, almost silently, because of the debts “common“Is perhaps the biggest revolution of 2020, and a significant step towards a”ever closer union“.
- But both measures have a deceptive effect on Belgian policy work: drawing up a budget is a piece of cake, without interest pressure, without EU rules, and with the sluices of spending open. The question is who will pay for the matter in the long term, in order to regain a balance.
- Incidentally, all policy levels are guilty of this: there was a hurry in 2020 not a day goes by without the Flemish government finding a new subsidy somewhere or measures to spend money on. In the meantime, Belgium spends no less than 3.4 percent of its GDP on subsidies.
- In addition, there are several large structural expenditures in social security were added, without them being properly funded.
- In the federal and Flemish coalition agreement, meanwhile, there are targets such as Belgium moving towards one employment rate of 80 percent must go: a complete utopia, which one is far from. Certainly if one knows that in 2020 large parts of the working population were on technical unemployment for months, due to corona. Chances are that they will end up without a job in 2021, once the measures expire.
- “7 out of ten Belgians do not feel the crisis“, The National Bank crowed euphorically, at the end of 2020. Never before have Belgians saved so much, 22 billion, that did not go into consumption. But such reports are completely out of place compared to the 30 percent who do bleed, and above all point to the already very high percentages of the labor force whose wages are simply paid by the state.
- The point at which until 70 percent of the population ultimately depends on the government for its income, as has been the case in some regions in Wallonia for some time, is not that far off.
The 2020 discussion: Much revolved around political legitimacy.
- This year was certainly also the year of the unelected policymakers, or at least policymakers with a very thin mandate.
- For example, we had a government for six months, Wilmès II, of which Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès (MR) started without the necessary electoral capital. She gradually gained a lot of confidence from the population, especially in French-speaking Belgium, but she never succeeded in converting that political capital into decisiveness. Her government, which could have started off perfectly as a Vivaldi coalition, ended in a fizzle out.
- Naturally, this discussion applies extensively to the De Croo government: to supply the prime minister as the seventh party, “then you are the mop of your government“. These are not our words, but those of Prime Minister De Croo himself, before he himself became Prime Minister. With twelve seats in the Sixteen: it is already a historical precedent. Just like the fact that the two largest parties in the country are not in government: unpublished in the Belgian context, which has always had a very high degree of fragmentation.
- A group of very media scientists, virologists and microbiologists, gradually went, thanks to constant exposure in the media, increasingly cast a shadow over the policy. This sparked off the interesting discussion about how far “advisers” can go in order to “adjust” politics through the public debate.
- Marc Van Ranst and Erika Vlieghe, among others, answered that question wholeheartedly in their actions. Up to and including a “silence strike”, just to perpetuate their position. They cemented the concept of one gouvernement des virologues, which does focus very one-sidedly on one aspect of the crisis, the medical. Whoever wanted to add other insights became kaltgestellt.
- In addition, the Vivaldi coalition immediately introduced a few heavyweights who did not appear on electoral lists, but now making it nice again in the government: Frank Vandenbroucke (Vooruit) returned, and immediately left his mark in an unseen way. CD&V is trying the same approach with Annelies Verlinden: sweeping new brooms.
- The worst role was undoubtedly reserved for the governors, in 2020. These high-paid, party politics appointed posts (often in an impeccable haggling) for a policy level that hardly has any reason for existence, put themselves in the spotlight “thanks” to the crisis, to the frustration of their own party members and the top. Carl Decaluwé in West Flanders and Cathy Berx in Antwerp in particular worked in the foreground with measures that would work perfectly in the better GDR state.
One observation: In times of crisis, fundamental rights apparently die quickly.
- The duo mentioned above, Decaluwé and Berx, were not the only ones who went far beyond their scope, compared to what should be sacred in a democracy: the basic rights of every citizen.
- The pandemic is compelling the government to take far-reaching measures, it was often stated during the crisis. But this was followed by the successive governments of Wilmès II and De Croo I. at the very least, very sloppy, from a legal point of view.
- A ban on going to a second home, a curfew, access by the police without an order from the investigating judge: these were all measures that were hardly substantiated by a legal framework in the Chamber.
- In 2021 they want to work on one broader “corona emergency law”, in parliament. That seems like a minimum of democratic control. But the broader discussion, how many rights we want and can give up, and how far we allow the state to get in our private life, has suddenly shifted very quickly.
The geopolitical framework: China benefited maximum this year.
- In January, February and March, people from China, where the corona virus first appeared, everything to minimize the matter. Just this week, a citizen journalist who raised the seriousness of the Wuhan case was jailed for five years. The Chinese government lied about the death toll and did little to protect the rest of the world.
- The effect is cynical: China experienced the second half of the year another economic growth spurt, while the rest of the world went into recession. The repressive Beijing regime, thanks to draconian restrictions on privacy and tracing its own citizens (which they were already very good at), is managing to quickly get the virus under control.
- At the same time, the crisis is seized to perform harder than ever against its own dissidents, to tackle the Uyghur minority harder than ever, and to nip any rebellion in Hong Kong in the bud.
- The technological lead that the Chinese are taking meanwhile makes them the world leader of the future, in a new world order. Donald Trump’s presidency seems to have only accelerated the relative slide of the US. Anyone who is happy about the prospect that Chinese values and norms will soon become more important, can report.
- The question is whether China ever recovery payment will get forced upon them, for the enormous damage they caused in the pandemic. The contrast with, among others, the Belgian head of state, who called the Chinese president this year to “thank them for their leadership in the crisis”, cannot be greater.
- That the Chinese come with few “friendly” intentions was painfully revealed once again, in a espionage scandal surrounding the embassy of Malta In the EU, the renovation of that building was a “gift” from the People’s Republic, right in front of the EU headquarters, and turned out to be chock-full of espionage equipment after the Chinese tackled it.
- In the meantime, the EU is about to a new trade agreement to sign with China, pushing the old continent further away from the US, and more into the arms of Beijing.
- We are looking forward to the ambitions of the Belgian government in those relations with China. The prime minister had already planned to travel to China every year, to strengthen dialogue.
The challenge: 2021 can only go better. The resurrection will follow after the disaster year? Almost all policymakers will have to try to answer this question positively, both in the federal and Flemish governments. It may be clear that this is not self-evident, after the unsavory spectacle of last year. By the way, 2020 was a farming year for two political families: The far right and far left surfed a wave of sympathy for their well-aimed criticism on the limping policy, with the wind in its sails. The task for the members of the government was therefore never greater.
The wishes: As every year, we asked the party chairmen what they hope for each other next year.
What they wished Prime Minister Alexander De Croo?
Which sweet words does one have in store for Bart De Wever (N-VA)?
What can one do Tom Van Greeks (Vlaams Belang) wishes for 2021?
What means 2021 for Joachim Coens (CD&V), if it depends on the colleagues?
What kind sympathetic words will Egbert Lachaert (Open Vld) get over him?
What does Conner Rousseau get (Forward) on his plate before 2021?
On what may Meyrem Almaci (Green) to hope?
And what wishes to the PVDA of Peter Mertens?