Belgium's future in the fog as coalition talks collapse
Belgium headed for the disreputable record of the world's country longest without a government Thursday as a fresh bid to bridge the gulf between the Dutch-speaking north and French south collapsed.
Trapped in its longest political crisis in history, the home of the European Union and NATO woke up to uncertainty after a palace-appointed mediator said efforts to end a deadlock between the two language communities were at a point of no return.
Johan Vande Lanotte, the latest political go-between appointed by King Albert II in Belgium's seven-month crisis, announced late Wednesday he was throwing in the towel as "there's no real perspective of progress."
"I informed the king it was impossible to break this impasse," he said. "I asked to be discharged."
Vande Lanotte, a Flemish socialist who tried for three months to bring the two sides together on a platform to transfer federal powers to the regions, said the king would start new consultations to find a way forward Thursday.
Belgium has been rudderless for more than seven months, holding Europe's record since January as the nation longest without government. Iraq currently holds the world title at over nine months in 2009.
Though a figurehead sovereign, Albert II has named a succession of go-betweens since June 13 elections failed to produce an outright winner -- but none have made headway in efforts to hammer out a coalition government deal.
A caretaker government is in charge of daily business, but as the impasse draws out fears are mounting of a break-up of the country of 11 million.
The crisis is also damaging Belgium's economic outlook, with ratings agencies warning of a downgrade in the absence of a stable government, a prospect that risks dragging the country into the rumbling eurozone crisis.
Belgians have voiced mounting impatience with the politicians as the crisis drags on. Callers shouted their anger on national radio Thursday after Vande Lanotte quit, accusing the country's leaders of being incapable of compromise.
"The End!" the French daily Le Soir said on its front page. "No Compromise, No Country."
The Dutch daily De Morgen titled its edition "Shame," recalling a march under that title organised through Facebook last weekend by 34,000 angry citizens, saying "What do we want? We want a government."
Belgium's political world, said an editorial in Le Soir, "is like a runaway train ignorant of the rest of the world... blind, arrogant, with no interest in the common good."
Among the options left for the king after several envoys have returned empty-handed are to call fresh elections or widen out the talks to other political parties.
Seven parties from both sides of Belgium's language divide have been involved in the long talks aimed at agreeing a deal to reform Belgium's federal system.
Flemish separatists emerged the leading party in the June election, with the Dutch-speakers -- who represent 60 percent across Belgium -- demanding more autonomy for their region, notably in fiscal and social policy.
But the French-speaking south fears a loss of subsidies for their once wealthy region as well as the start of the break-up of the country.
The current talks were based on a proposal by Vande Lanotte to increase devolution to the country's three regions -- Flanders, Wallonia and bilingual Brussels -- in line with demands by the powerful independence-minded N-VA.
The party, representing the wealthier 6.2 million Dutch speakers of Flanders, complains of footing the national bill for the 4.5 million francophones living in the rust belt of Wallonia.
NV-A chief Bart De Wever recently dubbed Belgium a failed state with no future, saying pouring money into Wallonia was "an injection like a drug for a junkie."
Also at the centre of the conflict between Flanders and Wallonia is the fate of the capital, a largely French-speaking city of one million people, with road signs in both languages, located in Flanders.
© 2011 AFP