Belgium's unity seen under threat as coalition splits

23rd April 2010, Comments 0 comments

The collapse of Belgium's coalition government heightened doubts Friday over whether the country could continue in its present form given the gulf between its two main linguistic communities.

The Flemish liberal VLD party quit the five-party coalition on Thursday, frustrated at a lack of progress on the flashpoint issue of special rights for French speakers in Dutch-speaking Flemish suburbs of Brussels.

The party's pullout left Prime Minister Yves Leterme little choice but to offer his resignation, although Belgian King Albert II was still mulling Friday whether to accept it.

The wider issue is separatist tendencies within the richer Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in the north of the country, which are of great concern to leaders in poorer francophone Wallonia in the south.

"It is time to ask how we can live together in Belgium in the coming years," Didier Reynders, head of the francophone liberal MR party, said on public radio Friday, as the nation digested the latest in a long string of political crises.

Much of the French press saw things as even more grave.

"Bye, Bye Belgium" and "Is there still a reason for this country?" were two of the headlines in Belgian newspapers Friday, reflecting growing fears over the future after the government's collapse.

In a country where each community has its own political parties, newspapers and wish lists, holding together a coalition government has appeared an ever more difficult task.

When Leterme threw in the towel on Thursday, it was the third time he had done so since July 2008.

It lead French-language daily Le Soir to apparently ponder giving up on the whole nation, with its existential question "Is there still a reason for this country?".

The Dutch-language De Standaard, the Flemish newspaper of record, saw the latest machinations "a clear sign of the impotence of Belgian politics."

"In this country, the francophones and the Flemish are no longer in a position to work out a deal on a symbol," it judged, referring to the impasse in negotiations on the linguistic and electoral rights of French-speakers in flashpoint Flemish suburbs of Brussels.

The Gazet van Antwerpen posed the question which all Belgians were asking themselves: what will happen to their country "after the chaos?"

Open VLD president Alexander De Croo, the party leader who triggered the political crisis by quitting the government, opened the door Friday to a compromise, but with an ultimatum attached.

"If those who broke their promises make an effort to fulfil them, we could re-evaluate the situation," De Croo told Dutch-language television VRT.

But De Croo gave the leaders of the three francophone parties of the government coalition a week to forge an agreement.

The heads of the francophone parties appeared on French-language television to say they were prepared to reopen negotiations with Open VLD but would accept no ultimatum.

"I would happily accept this new opportunity but we cannot fix any deadlines," said Socialist Party president Elio Di Rupo.

"What's important is an agreement, not a date," echoed Joelle Milquet, president of the centrist CDH party.

The latest political machinations are part of Belgium's perpetual crisis, but with each year that the fundamental issues remain unsolved, they appear more insoluble.

Since the last general election in June 2007 coalition governments have risen and fallen with alarming alacrity as one side or the other pulls the plug.

There has been no national political party since the 1970s.

One can less and less imagine Belgium surviving in the long-term, said political scientist Pierre Vercauteren from Mons University.

© 2010 AFP

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