Belgium on brink of crisis in new Flemish-French split
Belgium, home to the EU and NATO, was left plunged in dangerous political fog Monday when a fresh bid to seal a divide between Flemish separatists and French-speakers broke down.
With the language-divided country rudderless since inconclusive June elections, King Albert II had asked Bart De Wever, leader of the pro-independence Flemish N-VA party that topped the vote, to submit new proposals to bridge the gulf.
But the plan outlined by De Wever, who meets with the sovereign later Monday, were rejected as "biased" and "almost sheer provocation" by the three French-speaking parties involved in four months of efforts to form a coalition with the Dutch-speakers.
"Fabula acta est" ("the curtain has fallen"), retorted De Wever, echoing the Latin announcement of the end of a play as well as Emperor Augustus on his death-bed.
De Wever's 50-page draft for a reform of Belgium notably enabled Belgium's three regions -- Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels -- to gather taxes, reinforcing regional autonomy.
But that means Flanders, the country's most populous but also wealthiest region, would get the lion's share of the 45 percent of tax revenue no longer in the hands of the federal state.
Francophones fear poorer Wallonia would fall by the wayside and have warned that a break-up of the country could be a better, though dire, solution. The country has a 6.2 million Flemish-speaking majority, compared to 4.5 million French.
"The country is more divided than ever, bloc against bloc," said daily newspaper La Libre Belgique on Monday.
Proof the linguistic malaise is biting deep into the capital of Europe emerged at the weekend when a French-speaking army offficer, head of an airbase, said Flemish-speakers were taking over the armed forces.
"The Flemish decide everything," Colonel Luc Gennart told state RTBF television in a rare public show of criticism for a senior officer. "French-speakers are shoved aside, overseas or into training."
Albert II's decision to give De Wever an October 18 deadline to come up with a workable solution to the linguistic-based rift had been dubbed "a last chance" by commentators.
But with the make-or-break deadline now come and gone, commentators said there might be a call for fresh polls.
"I don't think a new election would settle the problem as opinion surveys show they would deliver the same scores," said political scientist Jean-Benoir Pilet in the Le Soir daily.
The N-VA last June not only emerged as the country's biggest party but increased its number of parliamentary seats more than fivefold.
In the proposals he put to other parties this weekend, De Wever suggests that each region be given wider powers, running employment and family welfare affairs as well as parts of the administration of health and justice.
He agreed with French-speakers to pump extra resources into the Brussels region, but well below the half a billion euros demanded by his opponents.
He also called for a split of Belgium's only surviving bilingual area, Bruxelles-Hal-Vilvorde, which would end the linguistic rights of tens of thousands of French-speakers living in the Brussels suburbs that are part of a Flemish region.
Dutch-language parties and press supported his proposals as the country chose its camp.
"There is practically no solution but new elections," said the daily De Standaard. "Chaos is just around the corner."
© 2010 AFP