The Forgotten Bifurcation, the Expected Trajectory

Hour-en-Famenne, August 29, 2017

If we set aside the political tactics, the individual frustrations of certain elected representatives and the bitterness of recent weeks during the summer of 2017 and regard them as setbacks, we might ponder the partial changes in majority in Wallonia in the light of the possible trajectories envisaged before the process initiated by Guy Lutgen, president of the Human Democratic Centre, or cdH, on 18 June 2017. An analysis of this kind had been carried out in 2016 by a group of independent actors and experts as part of the preparation for a conference organised by the Open University and the University of Mons (UMONS), in Charleroi [1]. This exercise was continued in 2017 with the Regional Foresight College of Wallonia, resulting in a Manifesto published in the journal L’Echo in March 2017 [2]. How should we try to interpret this at the end of August 2017?

First of all, we must consider the fact that those who had identified future bifurcations for Wallonia envisaged them only at the time of the next regional elections, in 2019 or 2024 – it is worth repeating that bifurcations are moments when the system can evolve in several directions and it follows one of the options open to it. Those observers did not necessarily see such bifurcations in changes in political majority, but thought instead that the scale of the expected transformation required an examination of the strength of the policies adopted, the problem being that the elected representatives in the majority that came to power in 2014 did not seem willing to implement them. As is often the case, incidentally, most of the elected representatives were concentrating on the demands of public opinion, as reported or stimulated by the press: providing responses to an effect of the disease symbolised by the benefits received by the ruling elite [3] rather than to the particularly disturbing socio-economic signals emerging from the actors and researchers [4].

The June 2017 wild-card

However, if we try to anticipate the bifurcations in order to prepare for them, and this was indeed the case for the elections in 2019 and 2024, we tend to forget that trajectories do not necessarily originate within the expected timescales: they may materialise spontaneously depending on their centre of gravity and the impetus they provide. This is what is called a wild-card, a major surprise or an unexpected, surprising and unlikely event that may have considerable impact if it occurs. In the exercise carried out on the trajectories for Wallonia, the experts chose various centres of gravity. However, they examined the uniqueness of the institutions of Wallonia and the political parties and identified the Elysette, the meeting place of the government, as the seat of regional power. This logic is fairly consistent, for example, with the bifurcation at the elections on 13 June 1999, with the emergence of the Rainbow government and the introduction of the Future Contract for Wallonia at the instigation of Minister-President Elio Di Rupo. This bifurcation offered a trajectory of potential transformation. We also know that clear bifurcations, major opportunities for change, might also not offer any positive change, as was the case with the communitisation of education in 1989 in which, ultimately, almost nothing happened due to the lack of an appropriate financing law and of any desire to change an educational model that clearly needed changing. But that, as Rudyard Kipling once wrote, is another story.

What we forget, however, and what may explain the events of this summer, is that the centre of gravity of the Wallonia trajectory has, to date, been located in the Elysette only to a very limited extent. Elio Di Rupo, who rose rapidly to become president of the Socialist Party, realised this in 1999 since he felt that the Boulevard de l’Empereur, headquarter of that party, restricted his political activity. In retrospect, there are two bifurcation moments that clearly illustrate the importance of the centre of gravity represented by the political parties. The first took place in 1997, just twenty years ago. The second was in 2005.

The Forgotten Bifurcation

1997: the president of the Christian Social Party (PSC) instigates a new Regional Policy Declaration (DPR)

Since 1994, Robert Collignon had led a Socialist-Christian Social coalition in the Wallonia Region. The Minister-President, who was in charge of the economy, was pursuing a policy of strengthening the existing centres of excellence: biogenetics and pharmaceuticals in Walloon Brabant, aeronautics in Charleroi, astronautics in Liège, environment in the Mons-Borinage region, water in Verviers, agrifoods in Gembloux, etc. He also restructured the steel industry and its three centres: Cockerill-Sambre, Forges de Clabecq and Boël La Louvière. However, at the end of May 1997, based on evidence that the economy of Wallonia was ailing, the President of the PSC (now the cdH), Charles-Ferdinand Nothomb, advocated a new regional policy declaration with some major reorientations to tackle both the economic and the political issues that had arisen in Wallonia. For the Christian Social president, it was a question of rebuilding people’s trust [5]. Since the first quarter of 1993, Wallonia industrial production had undergone a period of decline [6]. But of greater concern to the analysts assembled by the PSC were the comparisons they were drawing with Flanders over the long term: in particular, an unemployment rate that was twice as high in the south, an annual growth slowdown of 0.5 to 1%, a worrying investment rate and a negative trade balance[7]. For the PSC, and in particular for member of Parliament André Antoine, these economic problems were accompanied by a lack of public regulation [8]. A supplementary regional policy declaration was adopted in November 1997 and acted as a valuable recovery plan by promoting decompartmentalisation and transversality of action, calling for leadership from a Minister-President who had influence over his team, and offering new initiatives [9]. Seven years later, the 2004-2009 DPR indicated that an initial step towards recovery had been achieved by the 1997 supplementary regional policy declaration [10].

2005: the presidents of the cdH and the PS evoke the Marshall Plan

The second example is no longer fresh in people’s minds, even though the initiative continues to be at the heart of the political debates in Wallonia. It was June 2005 and Jean-Claude Van Cauwenberghe had been leading the government of Wallonia for five years. Since the 2004 elections, the Christian Socialists had replaced Liberals and Socialists as partners of the Socialists. The new DPR, mentioned above, stated as follows: Wallonia is recovering. But its economic weakness was so intense that the road to prosperity is still long! And then the phrase which has become a mantra for positive minds: One thing is certain: Wallonia has stopped declining [11].

But a year later, while the government was calmly undertaking its legislative work and implementing this regional policy declaration, cdH President Joëlle Milquet and PS President Elio Di Rupo, in turn, called for mobilisation. I’m calling for genuine Walloon action, declared the PS leader. We need a Marshall Plan for Wallonia that requires real ownership and accountability from everyone (government, unions, bosses, universities, teachers, organisations). It’s urgent. It is imperative that we all quantify the actions to be implemented and measure their effectiveness. We know that there are problems in Wallonia despite an improvement which, whatever people say, is still insufficient. The government has taken some positive steps through its strategic plan to stimulate activity. But the best measures in the world are worthless if they are not implemented on the ground. We must all roll up our sleeves; we are at a pivotal moment in Wallonia’s history [12]. Once again, it was clear, as reported by the journalist Didier Grogna at the time, that the President of the Socialist Party was aware of the worsening economic situation in Wallonia and the criticisms levelled at the Socialist partner by cdH vice-president André Antoine, especially concerning the problems experienced by the Minister-President in fulfilling his mandate. As the L’Echo columnist explained: We must shift mindsets and dare to say « no » to Socialist sub-localism; we must be bold enough to shake up the acquired rights and some of the « questionable » behaviour within the public bodies. It seems increasingly unlikely that Jean-Claude Van Cauwenberghe will be able to stay the course for the entire legislature. It appears inevitable that he will be replaced. But by whom? Who will dare to confront the local political bosses who have not been held to account for decades? Wallonia needs a Marshall Plan; that means putting political differences aside and all moving in the same direction[13]. Thus, throughout the summer of 2005, the government of Wallonia was bypassed by the presidents of both parties who, themselves, presented the Priority Plan for Wallonia to the press and, it seems, to the government. The PS and the cdH remained united or, in any event, given the agenda of the declarations in 2005 and 1997, the Socialist presidents adopted the Christian Socialists’ state of mind and expressed their own position alongside them. It is clear that the relations between Nothomb and Busquin were very constructive, as were those between Elio Di Rupo and Joëlle Milquet subsequently. Those relationships were clearly not working in 2017 since, for the first time since it came into being, therefore nearly 25 years, the constructive no-confidence ejector seat was activated to the detriment of the Socialists.

As we can see, 1997 and 2005 represent forced bifurcations, probably even wild-cards, originating from the centre of gravity of the political parties that formed the government majority, and they may help with our understanding of 2017.

A trajectory of hope, two years ahead of time

What seems to have been the problem in early summer 2017 is not so much the issue of the poor governance that has seriously affected almost the entire political world in Wallonia, but rather the convergence of opinion between these « matters » and the now evident inability to respond to the maldevelopment in Wallonia. Admittedly, in the strategy put forward by cdH President Benoît Lutgen, it was these cases of poor governance that constituted the casus belli, which caused scepticism among a number of observers since the cdH itself was also not exempt from criticism. However, as the leader of the Christian Social group reminded the gallery in the Parliament of Wallonia on 28 July, it would be wrong to downplay the signs which confirmed, in 1997 and in 2005, that Wallonia was not on the right road to recovery, since they came from the Economic and Social Council, the universities and the Business Association of Wallonia (Union wallonne des Entreprises). The trend trajectory, entitled Au fil de l’eau… usée, written in February 2016 by the working party assembled for the initiative organised by the Open University and UMONS, is particularly revealing. I quote as follows:

If we practice governance from another time, with an artificial evaluation and a lack of anticipation, if we are incapable of dealing with budgetary challenges and social and territorial cohesion challenges, if we are unable to survive electoral shocks in 2019 and 2024, the seventh reform of the State and the structuring of the skills and resources dedicated to teaching, training, research, etc., we will jeopardise regional cohesion. Wallonia would then experience a downward spiral that would challenge Walloon social and territorial cohesion.

It should be noted that the working party addressed the issues of future symmetries or asymmetries between coalitions at the various power levels and therefore the possibilities of accepting them more normally and more sincerely than in the current onerous climate of dissension. The participants also noted that political life in Wallonia is characterised by its stability concerning a central point, namely the permanence of the Socialist Party in power, with the resulting dominance across the entire political and administrative landscape. As one of the rapporteurs writes, by refraining, however, from expressing political opinions, and especially preferences, it is arguable that (sometimes, often, …) this stability may be confused, or risks being confused, with a certain rigidity. Yet the theory that the PS might be relegated to regional opposition is not beyond the realm of possibility: this is demonstrated by the results of the 2007 legislative elections and the remarkable scope given to the « little » Ecolo parties and the cdH to choose their « major » partner for federal coalitions in 2009. Whatever we think, and whatever the consequences (particularly institutional and administrative), this fundamental change in political habits would represent a major discontinuity in the regional common thread.

Admittedly, alternative trajectories were expected and they will, perhaps, be reviewed to establish whether they are the ones that the bifurcation of summer 2017 will bring. However, it is my conviction that, in addition to what might be a political game and contrary to what was said the day after this bifurcation, Wallonia, in the way that it was being run by the Magnette-Prévot government, was not on the road to recovery. Not because its policies were inadequate – both camps praised the Marshall Plan, its competitiveness centres, Creative Wallonia, the Digital Plan, etc., and the initiative of the Socialist Minister for the Economy, Jean-Claude Marcourt –, but because the mobilisation of the actors was not addressed and sufficient resources had not been allocated to the recovery and therefore to allow the economy to take off.

If we accept this idea, the new bifurcation undoubtedly represents the hope that stems from a transformative, regenerative trajectory that may finally materialise for Wallonia. This is the current rhetoric of the new government led by Willy Borsus. Admittedly, rhetoric is not a trajectory. If the new Minister-President succeeds in mobilising the men, women and resources in Wallonia to realise our redeployment ambitions, the change in majority will allow the regeneration to happen two years ahead of time, which is valuable particularly for those who have suffered from Wallonia’s maldevelopment for too long.


Philippe Destatte


[1] Philippe DESTATTE, Les trajectoires prospectives de la Wallonie (2016-2036), in Virginie de MORIAME and Giuseppe PAGANO, Où va la Wallonie? Actes du cycle de conférences UO-UMONS, p. 65-87, Charleroi, Open University, 2016. – Blog PhD2050, Charleroi, 25 February 2016,

[2] Wallonie, la trajectoire socio-économique, résolument, in L’Echo, 10 March 2017.

[3] I use this term in the Russian sense employed by Alain Rey which refers to the members of the regime who are entitled to exceptional prerogatives. A. REY dir. Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, p. 2389, Paris, Le Robert, 2006.

[4] See inter alia the convergence of the following analyses: Regards sur la Wallonie 2016, Liège, CESW, June 2016. – Etudes sur la situation de l’entreprise, Portrait des Entreprises en Wallonie, Evolution, Wavre, UWE, 08/2016. – Séries statistiques du marché du travail en Wallonie, Namur, IWEPS, December 2016. – Communiqué de presse du 10 février 2017 relatif aux comptes régionaux, Brussels, Banque nationale, Institut des Comptes nationaux, 4 p. – Paola ANNONI, Lewis DIJKSTRA & Nadia GARGANO, The EU Regional Competitiveness Index 2016, WP02/2017, European Commission, Regional and Urban Policy, 2017. – Rapport sur l’économie wallonne 2017, Namur-Liège, SOGEPA – SPW-DGO6 – IWEPS, February 2017. – Didier PAQUOT, Economie wallonne: 15 ans de plans de redressement, où en est-on? Speech to the Financial Forum of the Banque nationale, Louvain-la-Neuve, Ephec, 27 April 2017.

[5] Nothomb réclame une nouvelle déclaration, in L’Echo, 27 May 1997. – Nothomb réclame un grand pacte social: « Quand le temps du devoir de deuil sera passé, il faudra redonner confiance aux gens, Interviewed by Vincent JUMEAU and Jean-Léon WAUTERS, in L’Echo, 24 May 1997.

[6] Tendances économiques, SES, no.16, June 1999, p. 38.

[7] Une Wallonie moderne, Congrès de Liège du 24 mai 1997, Actes, p. 16sv, Brussels, PSC, 1997.

[8] André ANTOINE, De la nécessité de sortir du pragmatisme sous-régional en Wallonie, dans Une Wallonie moderne, Congrès de Liège du 24 mai 1997, Actes, p. 56-58, Brussels, PSC, 1997.

[9] Marnix BEYEN and Philippe DESTATTE, Un autre pays, Nouvelle histoire de Belgique 1970-2000, [volume 9 of the Nouvelle Histoire politique de la Belgique contemporaine de 1830 à nos jours, under the direction of Michel Dumoulin, Vincent Dujardin and Mark Van den Wijngaert], coll. Histoire, p. 272-273, Brussels, Le Cri, 2009, 428 p.

[10] Déclaration de politique régionale 2004-2009, p. 3, slnd, 2004, p. 3, 153 p.

[11] Ibidem.

[12] Elio Di Rupo appelle à un “sursaut” wallon et veut mettre fin au sous-localisme, Interview, in L’Echo, 11 June 2005.

[13] Didier GROGNA, L’argent n’est pas tout, in L’Echo, 8 June 2005.


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