Political storm breaks in Belgium

8th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

8 November 2007, BRUSSELS - Belgium sailed into uncharted political waters on Wednesday as a row between its ethnically-based parties boiled over into a parliamentary walkout and the apparent collapse of negotiations on forming a government.

8 November 2007

BRUSSELS - Belgium sailed into uncharted political waters on Wednesday as a row between its ethnically-based parties boiled over into a parliamentary walkout and the apparent collapse of negotiations on forming a government.

"From now on, the Orange-Blue negotiations (between liberal and conservative parties) have been suspended de facto by this grave act," French-speaking conservative grouping CDH - one of the negotiating parties - said in a statement.

The government negotiations have already lasted a record-breaking five months, and now appear to be deadlocked, with Belgium's two main ethnic groups apparently moving in opposite directions on the issue of voting in and around the federal capital, Brussels.

Belgium is divided between the Dutch-speaking Flemish majority and French-speaking minority. Its political blocs mirror that split, maintaining separate parties in each language community, but they have always in the past managed to form coalition governments - albeit after often lengthy talks.

Wednesday's storm broke when Flemish members of Parliament called a vote in committee on splitting the electoral district made up of Brussels and the commuter districts of Halle and Vilvoorde.

At present, the area is considered to be a single electoral zone, known as BHV, which is dominated by French-speaking parties. Flemish parties say that is unfair, as Halle and Vilvoorde are primarily Flemish-speaking - unlike Brussels.

But French-speaking parties said that such a move would threaten French-speakers in Halle and Vilvoorde with loss of their language rights, and threatened to walk out of Parliament and pull out of the coalition talks if the vote were to go ahead.

Flemish members of Parliament (MPs), who make up some 60 percent of the assembly, insisted that the vote be held, triggering the walkout. The vote on splitting BHV was then passed in the rump committee.

That decision was "irresponsible" and effectively suspended government talks, the CDH statement said. It will only be possible to reopen them if all sides give "clear guarantees" of a "desire to find a solution which is negotiated, not imposed" to the issue, it added.

Flemish politicians rejected the claims, saying that the French- speaking community had brought the situation on itself by refusing to negotiate constructively on the issue.

One of the CDH's leaders, Joelle Milquet, earned the nickname "Madame Non" earlier in the talks for her refusal to contemplate any change to the electoral system before a coalition deal was reached.

The BHV issue still has to be voted on in Parliament, with French speakers vowing they will use a constitutional right to stall it.

But the fact that one ethnic group has chosen to force a vote on an issue which the other clearly opposes is unprecedented, Vincent de Coorebyter of the CRISP social and political research centre told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

"There was a rule that the majority didn't have the right to impose their law on the minority. In that sense, the vote has a consequence for the functioning of Belgium," he said.

And the fact that the vote which triggered the walkout was passed with the support of the ultra-nationalist Vlaams Belang (VB) party is a "crisis" for the democratic system, the head of the French-speaking socialists, Thierry Giet, told the Belga news agency.

VB is the successor to the Vlaams Blok, a party which was disbanded on grounds of racism in 2004. Other Belgian political parties had previously refused to ally themselves with VB in a policy known as the "cordon sanitaire."

Not all observers agreed with Giet's assessment, however. The vote would have passed even without VB's support, so the party's isolation has not ended, Coorebyter said.

[Copyright dpa 2007]

Subject: Belgian news

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