December 18th, 2008


Political drama

It looks like our prime minister's time is finally up. I have always thought that Yves Leterme had a tin ear for the highest politics; it now turns out that he doesn't quite grasp either the principle of separation of powers, or telling the truth.

If he goes, as I think he must in the course of today or tomorrow, I think he will be the first actual head of government in Europe to lose his job because of the financial crisis. And weirdly, it's not because of the crisis itself, but because of the way he handled it. Several months back, a bailout plan was devised for Fortis (which happens to be my own bank); it was to be sold to the French, specifically to BNP Paribas. Last week, a Belgian court ruled that the transaction would have to be suspended for two months pending consultations with existing Fortis shareholders. Not especially good news for BNP Paribas (or for the bailout plan), but there we are; the courts are independent and make their own ruling.

Or are they? It seems that Leterme's office, and Leterme himself, was in contact with the judges in advance of the court decision. Granted, the decision they made was not the one Leterme wanted, but the perception that the prime minister was attempting to interfere in the judicial process is hugely damaging. What is worse is that Leterme's story kept changing over the course of the day yesterday: he wrote a letter to his own Minister of Justice laying out a chronology of his contacts with the court, which was then contradicted by other evidence and then indeed by his own account; he stunned the Belgian parliament yesterday by reading out correspondence between the Minister of Justice and the wife of one of the judges from his Blackberry. His coalition partners are threatening to revolt against the government, and the murmurings from within his own party are gathering pace.

And I see in the news just now that BNP Paribas has pulled out of the Fortis deal. I think that seals Leterm's fate.

As luck would have it, I have an appointment this afternoon downtown in the Belgian parliament. An interesting day to be there, I suspect!

Edited to add: Not very surprisingly, my meeting was cancelled. And the prime minister is still there.

Belgian crisis latest

The president of the Court of Cassation, the highest court in Belgium, wrote a private and confidential letter to the Speaker of the lower house of parliament today, in which he basically says, in a somewhat roundabout way, that the Prime Minister attempted to exert political influence on the judicial process concerning the BNP Paribas takeover of Fortis. This private and confidential letter, not surprisingly, rapidly became public. The Belgian federal cabinet has been in session for the last two and a half hours; apparently they are not discussing if Leterme will resign, but how many other ministers will resign with him.

There is no coverage of this whatsoever in English-language media. If you can read Dutch, is a pretty good resource though the fact that you get the same agency story several times over is annoying. I don't know of anything similar in French.