Belgian parties agree to reform talks
Following the resignation of the Flemish nationalist NVA party, main political parties from the Dutch- and French- speaking communities have agreed to reform talks.23 September 2008
BRUSSELS -- The main political parties from Belgium's feuding Dutch- and French-speaking communities have agreed to open key talks on federal reform, but only after the coalition government was weakened by a defection.
Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme on Sunday lost the support of the Flemish nationalist NVA (New Flemish Alliance) party which is unhappy at the blueprints for the talks on devolving more power to the regions.
However, that event allowed the other Dutch-speaking Flemish parties to commit themselves on Monday to the cross-communal talks.
The regional government in Dutch-speaking Flanders announced it was prepared to enter into a political dialogue on state reform, following the resignation of NVA party (New Flemish Alliance) minister Geert Bourgeois.
The francophone side had already agreed to enter into the reform talks, realising it was perhaps the only way to stop Belgium from breaking up - which almost one in two Flemish people want, according to opinion polls.
The main aim of such talks, according to the "wise men" trio who delivered the guidelines to Belgian King Albert II on Friday, should be "broad state reform leading to a rebalancing of the institutional centre of gravity, notably in extending more autonomy, competences and responsibility" to the regions.
The three royal advisors called for the talks to open "without taboo" subjects, though they did not set a timetable.
While the withdrawal of the small Flemish nationalist NVA party eased the way for the inter-communal talks, it was a further blow to Leterme's fragile coalition government.
The NVA defection in effect robbed him of his majority on the Flemish benches of the federal parliament.
The government can struggle on thanks to its strong majority on the francophone side, but analysts described the political situation as extremely uncomfortable.
"Everybody is just walking on a razor blade," said Vincent de Coorebyter, director general of the Centre for Socio-political research and information (CRISP).
He said the Flemish nationalists had to get out of power and return to opposition so that they would not go into regional elections next summer having failed to deliver on state reform.
"There is a general conviction among the French-speaking and the Flemish people that before the next regional elections a deep reform of the state will be very difficult to achieve.
"This is a problem that requires time," he told AFP.
Leterme has been trying to solve the country's political crisis since March, when he took office in a third attempt at forming a government nine months after the June 2007 elections when Belgium was left without formal leadership.
Flanders, Belgium's Dutch-speaking northern half, has long sought more regional powers to reflect its prosperity and resents subsidising the less affluent, French-speaking Wallonia region to the south.
Flanders, accounting for some 60 percent of the 10.5 million population, has long sought more regional powers to reflect its prosperity.
Unable to paper over the linguistic faultline more than a year after the general elections, Leterme handed in his resignation in July but the king refused to accept it.
Leterme said Monday that he regretted the NVA decision to withdraw support, without confirming that it meant the end of the cooperation between his Flemish Christian Democrats and the more hardline party.
[AFP / Expatica]