Flemish separatists hold key to Belgium's crisis

5th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

After six months without a government, leaders of language-divided Belgium met Wednesday to decide whether to resume talks to end the state's longest political crisis, with Flemish separatists holding the key.

Seven political parties -- four from Dutch-speaking Flanders, three from French-speaking Wallonia -- slated to form a coalition government will announce through the day if they are willing to resume talks to bridge the divide.

On the table was a new compromise to reform the Belgian state offering each of the country's communities more autonomy in line with demands from the independence-minded New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).

The N-VA picked up a whopping 28 percent in Flanders at June 13 elections that failed to produce an outright winner and raised the spectre of a break-up of the country.

A string of efforts since to hammer out a compromise have failed one after the other, leaving Belgium rudderless for a record 206 days.

The N-VA, which represents the once rurally-poor but now wealthier 6.2 million Dutch speakers, complains of footing the national bill for the 4.5 million francophones.

Its controversial chief Bart De Wever recently dubbed Belgium a failed state with no future.

The N-VA wants more autonomy and more power over the public purse but its demands have hit a wall of resistance from the French-speaking Socialists who won the majority among Wallonia's voters in the June poll.

The latest proposal, drafted by Flemish Socialist Johan Vande Lanotte on a request from King Albert II, proposes to transfer a quarter of the federal government's income tax revenue -- around 15 billion euros -- to the regions.

That is far less however than De Wever's proposal to remove 45 percent of tax revenue from the central coffers, which francophones fear would see Flanders grabbing the lion's share and poorer Wallonia falling by the wayside.

The new blueprint also gives the regions, including a small German-speaking community of 74,000 people, more power over employment, health and welfare payments.

In line with demands from French-speaking parties, it suggests donating 15 percent of taxes raised by the regions to the country's capital, Brussels, a largely French-speaking city located in Flanders.

There has been heated argument between the two sides over the fate of the prestigious city of a million, which despite playing host to global institutions the European Union and NATO, has a 20 percent unemployment rate and is struggling economically.

Other issues yet to be sorted include the status of some 130,000 French-speakers living on the outskirts of Brussels, who for 40 years have enjoyed special voting and legal rights.

The impasse is hurting the Belgian economy, leaving it open to threat from the markets despite efforts by the caretaker government to bring down debt.

"It would be best to have a new government in the next few weeks," warned central bank governor Guy Quaden last month.

Debt ratings agency Standard & Poor's too warned it could cut Belgium's credit score within six months if feuding politicians failed to form a government.

Should Belgium fail to get a new government by March 30 it would beat Iraq's world record of 289 days in 2009. Europe's longest rudderless state was the Netherlands in 1977, where politicians haggled 208 days before striking a deal.

© 2011 AFP

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