Belgium plunges into political unknown as talks fail again

4th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Belgium plunged into the political unknown on Monday after a new effort to form a coalition government fell apart as the divided country's Flemish and French-speaking leaders failed to bridge a gulf.

Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever declared the end of negotiations among seven political parties that have dragged on for more than three months since elections in June failed to produce a government.

"This story is over. Let's stop floundering," De Wever said, referring to the talks, adding that any fresh negotiations with his New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) should "return to square one."

The number two of the main francophone party, Socialist politician Laurette Onkelinx, slammed the N-VA's decision as "unacceptable."

"It is a lack of civic spirit from the N-VA to interrupt the formation of a government in this way and plunge the country back into chaos," she said.

The three main francophone parties, Socialists, CDH and the Greens, issued a joint statement to denounce the Flemish leader's statement as "irresponsible" and a "unilateral" break of the negotiations.

An earlier round of talks led by French-speaking Socialist leader Elio di Rupo also reached a dead end in early September, prompting King Albert II to appoint mediators in a bid to resurrect negotiations.

"We have got no answers to the vital questions being asked by Flemings," De Wever said, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the francophone parties.

"And if I have to carry it on my shoulders, too bad, but I reject any childishness," De Wever said.

He added that he remained "available" for talks. The francophone parties also said they were "open to discussion."

The king must now name a new political figure to revive the negotiations, leaving Belgium, which holds the European Union's rotating presidency until January, without a new government and with no end to the impasse in sight.

The N-VA, which came out on top in the Flanders region at the June elections, had given the French-speakers a Monday ultimatum to accept its demands for greater fiscal autonomy.

The separatist Flemish party wants the country's three regions -- Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels -- separately to be able to raise income taxes, a function of the federal state at the moment.

But francophones fear their Wallonia region, already less wealthy than its northern neighbour Flanders, will become poorer under such fiscal reform and warn it could lead to the break-up of Belgium.

"We are for solidarity," De Wever said. "The goal is not to impoverish all of us."

But the three French-speaking parties complained that the N-VA is insisting on financial autonomy for the regions without taking into account the guarantees demanded by francophones.

"Any francophone official who supports such a scenario accepts the structural impoverishment of the populations of Wallonia and Brussels," the three French-speaking parties said in their statement.

Flemish and francophone liberal parties, losers in the June elections, could be invited to the negotiating table if talks are revived.

Belgian media have also raised the prospect of a new election.

A split could provoke a political earthquake in the European Union.

Belgium, one of the 27-nation bloc's founding members, holds the rotating presidency of the EU until December and Brussels hosts the headquarters of the EU and NATO.

Even francophone politicians, usually staunch supporters of Belgian union, have begun to evoke the possibility of a divorce, as a Socialist leader warned early last month that French speakers should "get ready for the break-up of Belgium."

© 2010 AFP

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