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Flemish separatists face protracted Belgian negotiations

Published on 14/06/2010

Flemish separatists faced protracted negotiations on Monday with francophone Socialists despite their "historic" victory in Belgium's general election.

As Dutch speakers in Flanders and French-speaking Walloons alike digested demands to re-draw the federal state, Belgian media wondered whether the big winners on either side of the linguistic divide had anything in common going into coalition talks.

Final results released on Monday morning backed up separatist NVA (New Flemish Alliance) leader Bart de Wever’s late-night victory declaration amid supporters’ triumphant cries of “Long Live a Free Flanders”.

De Wever, 39, ultimately wants independence, and his party won the largest individual bloc of seats, 27 seats in the 150-member lower Belgian federal house, as well as the largest share of the vote in Dutch-speaking Flanders — 28.2 percent.

He has allies in his quest for fiscal or full independence, with the far-right Vlaams Belang winning another 12 seats, on 12.6 percent, plus one for the De Decker list, which polled 3.7 percent.

The Socialists secured 26 seats, with 36.6 percent of the vote across the other two federal regions, francophone Wallonia and officially bilingual Brussels, well ahead of caretaker premier Yves Leterme’s Christian Democrats, who picked up 17 seats with 17.6 percent.

Media suggested that as many as eight parties — Flemish and francophone — would be required for a Belgian coalition to stand any chance of running a stable government.

But the biggest issue is what kind of country Belgium is to become, with the Flemish pushing for only the loosest of federal ties to be retained.

As De Wever said in a message to French-speaking voters: “Don’t be afraid. Have faith in yourselves.”

Collectively, Walloon leaders are expected to fight for the welfare state to be kept shared across Belgium.

However, leaders in the more affluent Flanders have tapped successfully into public concerns that they subsidise their southern Walloon neighbours, and with Belgium’s public finances in a parlous state, conflict could easily erupt.

Markets are already sniffing a new target following the NVA breakthrough, fresh from ‘attacks’ on Greece, Spain and other debt-laden European nations.

“This is an increasing concern that needs to be watched carefully,” Frankfurt-based Goldman Sachs chief European economist Erik Nielsen wrote of the renewed appetite for break-up.

“Belgium’s public net debt is likely to go through 100 percent of GDP within the next year or so, and their financing requirements are among the largest in Europe this year and next.”

Flemish business daily De Tijd warned that the leading parties “do not have much in common”.

Francophone Brussels daily Le Soir said De Wever and Di Rupio hold “Belgium’s destiny in their hands”, but Walloon Sud Presse asked whether the “change” sought by Flanders is “still compatible” with a unified Belgium.

De Wever, who expressed a need to “assume our responsibilities” during horse-trading, underlined that he does not want to replace Leterme.

“The job of prime minister for me is not important, the key is to get a deal. If it helps the francophones to trust us, I’m happy to make that sacrifice,” he said.

The favourite is Di Rupo, who accepted that the wealthier Flemish majority had “manifestly” voted in large numbers for “institutional change”.

A country of 10.5 million people, 60 percent Flemish, Belgium — which hosts the headquarters of the European Union and NATO — has had four governments and three prime ministers since its last general election in 2007.

Leterme’s administration remains in charge of day-to-day affairs — and he is expected to be still in office when Belgium assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on July 1.