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Flemish, francophone row fuels crisis

22 August 2007

BRUSSELS (AFP) – Belgium’s Dutch- and French-speaking parties have been unable to form a coalition government despite over two months of wrangling, highlighting the rift between the political aspirations of the two communities.

The Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders “appears insatiable” in the eyes of the francophone community, which fears that attacks on Belgium’s federal system could presage a Flemish bid for independence, said Pierre Vercauteren, a political expert at the southern Mons University.

Flemish leaders accuse the French speakers in the southern Wallonia region of responding with scorn to their wish to “improve the functioning of the state” by devolving more power to the regions.

Yves Leterme’s Flemish Christian Democrat party, CDV, came out in front in Belgium’s general election on 10 June.

He was subsequently named the official government “formateur” by the Belgian king, charged with putting together an “orange-blue” coalition of liberals and Christian Democrats from both regions.

Such is the political divide in Belgium that no single party fields candidates nationwide.

The francophone camp accuses Leterme of not conducting the talks with an even hand, favouring the interests of Flanders, where he served as regional minister-president until June.
Public opinion south of the ‘border’ has also reproached him for “gaffes” including confusing the Belgian national anthem with the French Marseillaise and saying, last year, that the francophones do not have the “intellectual capacity” to learn Dutch.

The French and Dutch sides have also come up with opposing lists of political demands, fuelling the tension.

Parties in Flanders, the wealthiest part of the country, have been demanding greater political powers, and notably want to manage their own employment policy, currently in the hands of the federal government.

King Albert II last Friday suspended Leterme’s official talks with his potential coalition partners and assumed the reins of the negotiations himself, the first such intervention for three decades.

What followed was a concentrated weekend of royal talks with party presidents. However the impasse remains.

Around six million of Belgium’s 10.5 million people live in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, with 3.5 million in French-speaking Wallonia and one million in largely francophone Brussels.

The Flemish and the Walloon communities, whose cultural and political differences have multiplied in recent years, have always managed to muddle along within Belgium’s federal system, itself the fruit of hard-fought compromise.

The three regions of Flanders, Wallonia and the capital region of Brussels have obtained control over some aspects of the economy, transport systems and professional training.

Federal power still holds sway over international affairs, defence, justice and social security, deemed a key marker of national cohesion.

The federal system evolved differently from the classic model, such as the United States where a group of separate states fused together.

In Belgium the state existed for over a hundred years before its particular brand of federalism was hammered out in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

Now, as far as those in the richer Flemish region are concerned, the time has come to devolve more powers, notably the ability to levy business taxes.

The Walloons, where taxes would have to remain higher and thus less attractive to business, are crying foul.

A “New Deal” is needed to place control of the country’s “economic levers” in the hands of the regional authorities, argues former Flemish minister Eric Van Rompuy.

While pronouncing himself “absolutely not a supporter of an independent Flemish state” he predicts that “separatism” will result “if the francophones and Flemish aren’t able to form a federal government”.

“We are approaching that moment if the French ‘non’ is maintained,” he said this week.

Didier Reynders, president of the francophone liberals, a potential partner in the future coalition, has given Leterme until midweek to present “concrete and balanced proposals”.

“If not we will have to draw our conclusions,” added Reynders, suggesting that Leterme would have to renounce his claim as the next prime minister of all the Belgians.

[Copyright AFP 2007]

Subject: Belgian news