Belgian coalition at risk as Flemish party quits

22nd April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Belgium's coalition government teetered on the brink of collapse Thursday after Flemish liberals announced they were pulling out over a row between Dutch-speaking and francophone communities.

"The Open VLD has lost confidence in the government," party president Alexander De Croo told reporters after a meeting of leaders of his Dutch-speaking liberal party in Brussels.

The move threatens to destroy the government, an uneasy coalition of two parties from the Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders and three parties from francophone Wallonia in the south.

Open VLD took its decision after lengthy talks between parties from the two linguistic regions failed to reach a deal.

The row centres on special rights which apply to French speakers in the Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde suburbs of Brussels, where around 100,000 French-speakers live.

These Flemish-run communities on the outskirts of the capital have been trying to dissuade French-speakers from moving in, largely by demanding that they speak Dutch, but also by toughly enforcing rules on public housing and seeking to suppress special voting rights.

Talks broke down overnight Wednesday without a deal.

"A negotiated solution has not been found and that's why the Open VLD is withdrawing its confidence in the government," said De Croo.

"The government has now fallen," a party spokesman said.

However the fall of the government, led by prime minister Yves Leterme, had yet to be confirmed, as the four remaining coalition members -- one Flemish and three francophone parties -- can still between them muster a mathematical majority in the chamber of deputies.

But the departure of the Flemish liberals makes it difficult for the coalition to survive as it breaks the balance of Dutch-speaking and francophone parties within the government which now consists only of Leterme's Flemish Christian-democrats and his three French-speaking partners.

Dutch speakers make up 60 percent of the population in Belgium, where only the capital Brussels is officially bilingual.

There are no political parties operating nationally, which means each government must be a coalition of the linguistic communities.

The francophone community in the poorer southern region of Wallonia fear their compatriots to the north want, eventually, full autonomy for the regions.

Open VLD's decision "won't win Flanders what it really wants, separation and the end of the country," said francophone leader Olivier Maingain.

A political crisis would be an embarrassment beyond Belgium's borders as it is due to assume the EU's rotating presidency in July for the second half of the year.

Leterme became prime minister last November after the sudden departure of predecessor Herman Van Rompuy who was named as the first president of the European Council.

Less than a year prior to that Leterme had stepped down amid a banking scandal at the height of the global financial crisis.

The 49-year-old Leterme knows all about fragile coalitions.

In 2008 he failed, during a rocky and short spell in office, to resolve the nation's over-riding problem: the power-sharing rivalry between the Walloon and Flemish communities.

© 2010 AFP

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