Fifth column: Autumn agreement

Summary

Recent squabbling over pension reforms has highlighted once again how hard the three Flemish coalition parties find it to see eye to eye on social and economic matters

Anja Otte's take on the week in politics

The government of Flanders had some good news last week, as its budget has a surplus – always a feat in this country. The elation within the government led by minister-president Geert Bourgeois (N-VA) was similar to that of the federal government some weeks ago, when it presented the so-called Summer Agreement.

Gone were the days of “the squabbling cabinet”. The agreement on a large number of social and economic reforms was a fresh show of unison. 

But as autumn approached, the squabbling resumed. This time the issue at stake was pensions for people over 50.

In the Summer Agreement, the federal government had stuck by the principle that working should always result in a higher pension than periods of unemployment. This was inspired by a popular story of two elderly Walloon women. One of them had been self-employed all her life, but her pension turned out to be lower than her friend’s, who had been unemployed for over 30 years.

To avoid absurdities like this, the Summer Agreement stated that pension built up during periods of unemployment would be based on a set minimum instead of previous wages. But SP.A leader John Crombez saw a fly in the ointment: People in their 50s who find themselves out of a job after having conceivably worked for 40 years or more.

“These people lose their jobs, and then you punish them further by lowering their pensions,” he snapped at Open VLD president Gwendolyn Rutten. Nonsense, she replied.

However, that was indeed how both N-VA and federal pensions minister Daniel Bacquelaine (MR) had interpreted the deal. The result was another week of negotiations, with what was mockingly called the Autumn Agreement as its outcome.

In the end, Rutten, who had the support of CD&V, got her way... for a while. Even as she stated that people over 50 should not worry and that the “scaremongering” should end, N-VA announced that the issue was still on the table. It wants to hold another round of negotiations specifically on pension issues later this year.

The incident highlights once again how hard the three Flemish coalition parties – N-VA, CD&V and Open VLD – find it to see eye to eye on social and economic matters. Similar though their views may be, vying for the same electorates has made them edgy.

Recent opinion polls that show N-VA still firmly in the lead have only made the other parties even more nervous.
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