King issues plea to politicians to save crisis-hit Belgium

8th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Belgium's King Albert II stepped into the public arena Friday to urge the country's fractious politicians to ease a deepening crisis, a day after a failed bid to end a 13-month stalemate.

In a rare political statement, the sovereign said that "given the gravity of the political situation, the king wishes that each of the country's political leaders take a few days of reflection to measure the consequences of the political situation and seek avenues towards a solution."

The statement was issued after talks between the sovereign and French-speaking Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo, who had been tasked by Albert II in mid-May to form a coalition after almost 13 months of caretaker government in the country at the heart of Europe.

But a position paper drafted by Di Rupo that was to serve as the basis for a coalition was rejected Thursday by the country's largest party, the Flemish separatist N-VA.

After months of tense and trying negotiations, the move underlined the widening gulf between the wealthier 6.2 million Dutch-speakers in northern Flanders and the 4.5 million French-speakers of struggling Wallonia.

The palace statement also said Di Rupo had asked the king to be relieved of the mission to form a government but that the king had "suspended" a decision.

The collapse of Di Rupo's mission dashed hopes of ending the impasse which has left Belgium holding the dubious record of the world's country longest without a government.

"The N-VA no longer wants Belgium," said deputy Socialist party leader Laurette Onkelinx, echoing fears of a looming breakup of the country.

The setback for Di Rupo, whose party ran second behind the N-VA in an inconclusive June 13, 2010 election, leaves no obvious exit strategy.

As French commentators blasted hardline N-VA leader Bart De Wever, Flemish editorialists said a snap election loomed.

Di Rupo and De Wever would never sit side-by-side in a government, said commentator Liesbeth Van Impe in the daily Het Nieuwsblad, forecasting an early election. "De Wever has given Di Rupo, with all due respect, the middle finger."

On Thursday, the Flemish separatist who led his party to victory with 28 percent of the vote in Flanders last year, scuppered Di Rupo's 110-page paper but offered to continue talks with the remainder of Belgium's parties.

Recent polls show support for his unswerving demands to devolve greater power to Belgium's already strongly autonomous language-based regions is gaining ground, with his popularity currently tipped at over 33 percent.

The French-language Le Soir newspaper said De Wever's "Neen" (or "No") underscored his private view that "Belgium is not worth the effort any more."

"We are close to an early election," political scientist Dave Sinardet told AFP. "If not we'll remain in this no-man's land, going round in circles -- but it can't go on for ever."

Of the country's nine major mainstream parties, seven signed on to Di Rupo's proposals, with the N-VA and another more moderate Flemish party holding out.

With Belgium's debt hovering near 100 percent of its GDP, and ratings agencies warning of cuts in the country's AA+ rating failing a lasting political deal, Di Rupo's paper called for massive cuts in public spending.

He also urged greater devolution to regional and community authorities in what would have been the sixth administrative reform of the country in 40 years.

But liberal-thinking De Wever lashed out at his rival's call for more taxes and said the separatists wanted more devolution.

After warnings a crisis could trigger financial fallout, the European Union executive said it was "following developments attentively" but was confident Belgian parties would "reach an agreement and form a government as quickly as possible."

© 2011 AFP

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