King rushes home as fragile Belgium hits fresh turmoil
Belgium's King Albert II rushed home from holidays Wednesday after a shock decision by caretaker premier Yves Leterme to quit amid a new deadlock in talks to end the nation's longest political crisis.
Eurozone member Belgium has been without a government for 458 days as its French- and Dutch-speaking components squabble and is under notice from ratings agencies of a possible downgrade should it slip deeper into crisis.
Leterme set off a political storm with a late Tuesday announcement of a bid for a Paris-based post as deputy chief of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development just as Belgium appeared about to plunge further into trouble.
Albert II, who has played a lead role in 15 months of efforts to strike a deal between the two feuding language communities, cut short his vacation in southern France and was to be flown home aboard a military plane.
In July, the sovereign appointed Elio Di Rupo, leader of the country’s second major party, French-speaking Socialists, to negotiate a consensus deal as a platform for a governing coalition.
But hours after Leterme announced he was quitting, Di Rupo announced in a pre-dawn statement headlining Belgians that his four-month drive to find a government for Belgium too looked to be heading for breakdown.
After a marathon 15-hour stint, the talks were in “deep blockage”, he said, urging “a last-ditch effort”.
Several hours after resuming Wednesday, sources reported some improvement.
“Should today’s talks end badly we will face institutional chaos within a very shaky economic and financial European context where Belgium faces the unknown,” political scientist Pascal Delwit said on RTL television.
Asked whether he predicted an imminent breakup of the country, however, he said: “We’re not there yet.”
The country was left in the hands of a caretaker cabinet after June 10, 2010 elections failed to throw up a workable governing coalition, due to the divide between northern Dutch-speaking separatists and southern French-speakers.
Leterme said that should he get the OECD job, his resignation date “will be determined by taking into account his current responsibilities as caretaker prime minister.” He was ready to see out the remaining months of 2011, he added.
After long months of trying negotiations, the current impasse underlines the widening gulf between the wealthier 6.2 million people of Flanders and the 4.5 million French-speakers of struggling Wallonia.
Di Rupo has been trying to draft an agreement to devolve more powers to the country’s three language regions — Dutch, French and German.
Eight parties are involved in the talks but not the largest party in Flanders, the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).
Albert II warned in July that the continuing deadlock, which has seen Belgium have the dubious record of being the world’s longest country without a government, threatened both its economic future and Europe as a whole.
“If this situation lasts much longer, it could negatively and concretely affect the economic and social well-being of every Belgian,” said the sovereign, who ascended to the throne in 1993.
“Our current situation is a cause for concern among our partners and could damage our position in Europe, and even the momentum towards European integration which has already been undermined by populism and euroscepticism,” he said.
A founding member of the European Union, Belgium was often considered an example of integration in Europe and plays host to pre-eminent global organisations NATO and the EU.
It now risks becoming a symbol of division.