After a round of meetings with party leaders following last weekend’s elections, the King has named two senior and experienced politicians to begin the arduous task of finding a way to put together a federal majority to run the country for the next five years.
His choice fell on a conservative and a socialist, but of the old school. Didier Reynders (MR) was minister for foreign affairs in the outgoing Michel government, as well as standing in at defence when N-VA left the coalition at the end of last year. He has in his time also been responsible for finance, European affairs, institutional reform and foreign trade. Reynders has been a vice-premier in eight administrations under five prime ministers.
Johan Vande Lanotte (SP.A) was mayor of Ostend from 2015 to 2019, but before then served as federal home affairs minister, as well as being responsible for administrative affairs, budget, social integration and economy and government affairs, as well as spending a period in the Senate, then coming back to government in charge of anti-fraud measures, economy, the North Sea and consumer affairs. He also teaches law at the university of Ghent.
The job of the two men as informateurs will be to conduct a first round of consultations with all of the major parties and whichever of the smaller parties they choose, to see how the political world can build a majority government ready to work together and able to realise its common goals. The task is a mammoth one, with the country now more or less evenly split between a left-wing majority on the French-speaking side, and a right-wing majority on the Flemish side. In Wallonia, socialist leader Elio Di Rupo has vowed not to work with the N-VA, while everyone maintains the cordon sanitaire around Vlaams Belang. More astutely, N-VA leader Bart De Wever has refused to rule any partners out. The other main parties, all of whom lost votes with the exception of the Ecolo/Groen alliance, are keeping their powder dry for the chance to work with either side should the opportunity present itself.
The job of “informateur” in this context has traditionally been given to an elder statesman, somewhat above the fray, whose job is not to put together a government, but to report back to the King and inform him of the challenges facing any new government, and the possibilities that exist for finding a solution to the political impasse. That is why it is no surprise that Bart De Wever was not called on: he is too deeply involved in the current political situation to be objective. His turn, if it comes at all, will come at a later stage, when the actual horse-trading among parties begins, and the King appoints a formateur (the words are in French and Dutch alike) to form a government.
The two men met with the King on Thursday for about an hour, having been given until 6 June to present a first appreciation of the situation. They later issued a statement explaining that they have known each other and worked together for many years, and would be aiming to conduct their consultations in a serene manner.
“The situation is complex, and we know it is not going to be easy,” Reynders said. “If it was easy, it would already have been done.”