James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political adviser in the 1992 presidential campaign, boiled politics down to its essence when he hung a slogan in the campaign’s headquarters, known as the War Room – “It’s the economy, stupid”.
But not in Belgium – or at least, not until this week. The one thing that foreigners fix on when they live here for a time – the fundamental schizophrenia of Belgium – has been on show from the start. Belgians of all sides can’t complain about onlookers taking a very one-dimensional view if that’s the picture they go to great lengths to present.
And so it was that Bart De Wever (photo) became the man of the campaign. On both sides of the language divide, De Wever became the focus of attention. As a Flemish nationalist, he was going to break Belgium apart, they said in the southern half of the country. As the man who so scared the French-speakers that they neglected to campaign on their own divides, the word went out in the north, De Wever was going to scupper any chance of successful negotiations to form a new government within a reasonable time (reasonable in this context appears to mean “by about October”).
De Wever must have taken great comfort from that great political truth: if everyone is against you, you must be doing something right. As the opinion polls continued to run in his favour, he had the pleasure of hearing politicians from across the divide declining to rule out cooperation with him. He also had the opportunity of maintaining a dignified silence when Guy Vanhengel (photo), federal budget minister and Open VLD’s man in Brussels, made a disgraceful attempt to smear De Wever as an extremist of the order of the Vlaams Belang.
Then this week the tactics changed. The headlines brought Carville’s words to mind, when it was “revealed” that international money markets were worried that N-VA might come to power, and as a result had raised the price at which they would be prepared to accept Belgian government debt. In other words, Belgium’s credit rating was in the tank because Bart De Wever looked like doing very well this coming Sunday.
It was a smear worthy of a British tabloid. Clearly, the idea of portraying De Wever as an independence-extremist wasn’t demonising enough. Perhaps if people could be convinced that De Wever might be a threat to their jobs, or wages, or pensions, his progress could be halted. The initiative appeared to come from Luc Coene, deputy governor of the National Bank, who also happens to have been the chief of staff of Guy Verhofstadt, the former liberal prime minister.
The association of De Wever with Belgium’s bad credit is fundamentally dishonest. The markets are not wary of Belgian government paper because of De Wever; they’re wary because Belgium is an economic basket-case. Debt levels are soaring; Belgian banks are deep in the mire in Eastern Europe; overseas investors are pulling out; successive governments refuse to do anything about the structural costs which stand in the way of doing business; Belgium’s Tax Freedom Day, the day on which you stop earning for the state and start working for yourself, is later than all but Sweden.
The extent of the problem is in any case exaggerated. The interest on Belgian 10-year bonds is determined by the market: the government will pay whatever the market demands. Towards the end of May, that rate had dropped to just under 3.1%, making Belgian government debt cheaper. By this week, it had gone up to slightly less than 3.6%. Admittedly, a half-point rise in interest is something that would send many home-owners into freefall, and they don’t have billions of euros of debt to think about.
On the other hand, the 3.1% low was itself an anomaly. On April 1, the rate was 3.536%. On June 7, it stood at 3.593% -- an increase of 0.057%. But Alexander De Croo, chairman of Open-VLD, didn’t pull the plug on Yves Leterme’s government until April 26, by which time the rate on ten-year paper was on the slide, albeit with fluctuations.
The theory also ignores the fact that N-VA used to be in the government. After good results in the federal election of June 2007, N-VA formed a partnership with CD&V, the party of Yves Leterme. In September 2008, however, the partnership was over, broken up by – what else? – a question of dialogue between the different communities. De Wever’s party was in power for 15 months. The financial markets appear not to have abandoned Belgium as a result.
One of the most surreal aspects of the story came from VTM news, which did a vox-pop in the EU quarter asking people their views on the “prospect” of Belgium splitting up. The reporter managed to garner points of view from Eurocrats from Cyprus, which is divided in two; from the UK, where Wales and Scotland are devolved; from Spain, where some regions have a substantial degree of autonomy; and from the Czech Republic, which used to be part of Czechoslovakia. The irony seemed to pass everyone by.
De Wever appeared to give some credence to the scare stories, however, when he called a press conference of the foreign press, most of who don’t understand a word of Dutch and usually get their Flemish sources filtered through the newsdesks of Le Soir and La Libre Belgique. The press conference was intended to reassure the world that De Wever wasn’t the bogeyman he was painted as. “We don’t want a revolution,” he assured them in perfect English. The soothing words seem to have done their trick: not a single European newspaper picked up the story. Small earthquake in Belgium: little interest in the rest of the world.
Alan Hope is News editor of Flanders Today.