A day of mixed fortunes

11th October 2005, Comments 0 comments

Late-night talks and fiery discussions culminated in Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's federal policy statement to Parliament on Tuesday. Aaron Gray-Block takes a look at what took place behind the scenes.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt extended a new tradition on Tuesday: presenting his government's policy statement to the Belgian Parliament.

Guy Verhofstadt was centre stage in presenting his policy vstatement

The Liberal VLD leader spoke to gathered politicians at about 2.30pm, outlining the main agenda items his government will pursue in the coming political year before requesting Parliament support.

In keeping with the growing tradition, coalition government parties Liberal VLD, Socialist PS, Socialist SP.A and Reform Movement MR were expected to greet Verhofstadt's speech with loud applause.

Also true to tradition, the opposition parties were routinely expected to criticise the plans.

But clinging to hopes of at least one surprise, newspaper 'De Standaard' wondered whether Christian Democrat CD&V leader Pieter de Crem would improve upon his simple comment from last year: "You lie, Prime Minister".

Birth of a tradition

CD&V Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene launched the policy statement tradition in 1993. At that time, the leader's speech was known as the 'State of the Union' address.

It was not until a few years later and the emergence of Prime Minister Verhofstadt that the speech gained its present name: 'the federal policy statement' and the greater political significance it now enjoys.

Primarily, the federal leader will present to Parliament the coalition government's policy intentions for the coming year and unveil the logistics of the budget. The speech also signifies the start of the new political calendar.

Marathon talks

The federal government has not enjoyed an easy lead-up to this year's policy statement, only managing to reach a last-minute deal to balance the budget at about 5am on Tuesday.

That agreement came after nine hours of talks between federal ministers and an endless series of meetings throughout much of Monday (and on Sunday night).

Verhofstadt started Monday with a 9am meeting with unions and employers and the inner Cabinet met at 1pm in what was dubbed a "test of the government".

Sharp words were exchanged at that meeting between Verhofstadt and Socialist PS Deputy Prime Minister Laurette Onkelinx.

At 3pm, unions were recalled for talks, but were left waiting as the inner cabinet meeting continued and at 4pm, the Wallonian and Flemish Premiers were also left waiting for their talks.

Deputy Prime Minister Johan vande Lanotte and Didier Reynders eventually walked from the prime minister's official residence Lambermont to Parliament in Wetstraat 16 in Brussels to meet with the premiers and request a EUR 250 million contribution to the federal budget.

In the meantime, the government reached agreement on its social security and retirement reforms and Verhofstadt joined the talks with the regional premiers at 5.45pm.

A half hour later, the prime minister gave a press conference to unveil his social security and early retirement reforms.

At 6.30pm, the premiers left their meeting with the deputy prime ministers, having agreed to their request for a budgetary contribution.

An hour later, cabinet ministers begin to gather to discuss the final details of the budget. The talks extend through until 5am on Tuesday.

Strike action and threats

In the lead-up to Budget Day, Belgium also witnessed its first general strike in 12 years as the Socialist union ABVV expressed its rage at planned social security reforms.

Employers association VBO estimated the costs of the strike at EUR 660 million.

Marathon talks took place to seal an agreement on next year's budget

Unions are concerned by moves to lift the minimum age workers can take early retirement from 58 to 60. The aim is to increase worker retention and reduce the affects of the aging population.

Determinedly, the government pushed ahead with its agenda on Monday, agreeing on its series of measures before presenting the 'not up for discussion' document to unions and em

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