Belgian PM urged to continue constitutional reform talks

7th July 2008, Comments 0 comments

The Belgian leader has been urged to press on with constitutional reform talks between Dutch and French-speaking parties.

7 July 2008

BRUSSELS -  Belgian Premier Yves Leterme's coalition partners urged him Friday to press on with constitutional reform talks between Dutch and French-speaking parties he said were deadlocked a day earlier.

Leterme faces a 15 July deadline for a deal on more financial and other autonomy for Belgium's 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones.

Ending the negotiations - which have made no headway - now will cause the collapse of Leterme's government.

Although he said Thursday the talks were deadlocked, Leterme said Friday he saw a "willingness to succeed."

But the slow-as-molasses pace of the reform talks has only aggravated an atmosphere of crisis hanging over Leterme's government.

Dutch-speaking parties want to make Flanders - Belgium's prosperous Dutch-speaking north - financially more independent, notably by shifting corporate taxes and social security measures from the federal to the regional level.

Francophones say enough federal powers have been handed to the regions since the 1980s and accuse Dutch-speakers of seeking the breakup of Belgium so they can declare Flanders independent.

"This is not the moment to lose courage," Vice Premier Patrick Dewael, a Dutch-speaking Liberal, said Friday of the need to push ahead with the reform talks. "Failure is not an option."

Leterme's government is a bewildering seven-party coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists from the two linguistic camps, plus hard-line Flemish and Francophone nationalists.

It took office 20 March after six months of deadlock over constitutional reform, an issue put to special negotiations that began June 2 in an atmosphere of enormous mutual distrust.

"It is tough (to negotiate with) the Francophones. Some think it's OK to keep saying 'no'" to shifting more federal powers to the language regions, Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said Friday.

Complicating matters is the wish in Flanders to break up a bilingual, Brussels-area voting district in line with a 2003 court ruling. Francophone politicians, who draw support from French-speakers living in Flemish suburbs around the Belgian capital, oppose that.

[AP / Expatica]

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