Belgian political crisis deepens as mediator throws in towel

6th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Belgium's political crisis deepened Thursday when a mediator appointed by the court to end a political crisis that has left Belgium without a government for 207 days threw in the towel.

Johan Vande Lanotte tendered his resignation to King Albert II a day after powerful Flemish separatists said "Neen" -- No -- to his offer to return to the negotiating table to set up a coalition government.

The failed bid, the latest in almost seven months of efforts to bridge the gulf between the country's Flemish and French-speaking communities, leaves divided Belgium headed into political and economic fog.

"You can take a horse to water but you can't force it to drink," said Vande Lanotte. "There is not sufficient willingness to negotiate."

"One day, the political leaders will have to take this step in the interests of the country's prosperity," he said.

King Albert II, who appointed the mediator following a June 13 general election that failed to produce an outright winner, is to respond Monday.

While the same caretaker cabinet that skilfully presided the European Union through six months of debt crises is keeping the buses and trains running on time, fears are mounting of looming economic strife.

With debt hovering just below the 100 percent mark of GDP, ratings agencies and the nation's central bank have warned of a potential threat from financial markets if feuding politicians fail to strike a deal any time soon.

The seven political parties -- four from Flanders, three from Wallonia -- slated to form a coalition had been handed a Wednesday deadline to accept or reject Vande Lanotte's proposal.

His 60-page proposal to reform the state -- after five institutional reforms in four decades -- aimed to increase regional autonomy in line with demands from the powerful independence-minded New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).

But the N-VA, which won the top score at the country's indecisive June elections, said it had "fundamental remarks", or objections, on the text.

French-speaking Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo, who won a majority in Wallonia in the June poll, said "the situation in unbearable ... we must stop going round in circles."

"The spectacle we're giving of ourselves is undignified and irresponsible," he said.

Di Rupo also said it might be time to open political crisis talks to centre-right liberal parties on both sides of the language divide. "If (the talks) must be broadened out, we are open to that," he said.

Belgium has been in political crisis on and off since 2007 as nationalist sentiment grows in Flanders, .

The N-VA, which represents the once rurally-poor but now wealthier 6.2 million Dutch speakers, complains of footing the national bill for the 4.5 million francophones and wants more devolution and more power over the public purse.

Because Vande Lanotte is Flemish and took into account many N-VA demands, hopes were high the party would sign on.

His compromise proposed the transfer of around a quarter of the federal government's income tax revenue -- around 15 billion euros -- to Belgium's regional governments.

It also gave the regions, including a small German-speaking community of 74,000 people, more power over employment, health and welfare payments.

But at the heart of the continuing conflict between Flanders and Wallonia is the fate of the country's capital, host to the EU and NATO.

The largely French-speaking city of one million people, where road signs and the administration are bilingual, lies in Flanders.

Despite its prestige as capital of Europe, its coffers are in poor shape and unemployment is at 20 percent.

In line with demands from the French-speaking parties, the compromise offer suggested donating 15 percent of taxes raised by the regions to the capital, a suggestion frowned upon across the other side of the language border.

Also to be sorted is the status of some 130,000 French-speakers living on the outskirts of the city, who for 40 years have enjoyed special voting and legal rights.

© 2011 AFP

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