Fragile Belgium heads for turmoil as PM quits

14th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Belgium headed into uncharted waters Wednesday after a shock decision by caretaker premier Yves Leterme to seek another job, amid deadlock in talks to end the country'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 OECD chief just as Belgium appeared about to plunge further into trouble.

King Albert II, who has played a lead role in 15 months of efforts to strike a deal, was to be flown home aboard a military plane from southern France to face the storm.

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 the head of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Angel Gurria, would propose him as deputy secretary general of the organisation on Friday.

Should he get the job, his resignation date "will be determined by taking into account his current responsibilities as caretaker prime minister," he said, adding he was ready to see out the remaining months of 2011.

But hours after the shock news came a pre-dawn warning that the latest four-month drive to find a government for Belgium too looked to be heading for breakdown.

Elio Di Rupo, who heads the Socialist party that won a majority in French-speaking Wallonia in 2010, warned in a statement that headlined Belgian news that the talks had run into "a deep blockage".

He urged fellow-politicians to make "a last-ditch effort".

After long months of trying negotiations, the impasse underlines the widening gulf between the wealthier 6.2 million people of Flanders and the 4.5 million French-speakers of struggling Wallonia.

Should the talks fail, the country could face snap polls that political scientist Christian Behrendt warned "may be the last Belgian elections ever".

Di Rupo was asked by Albert II last July to draft an agreement to devolve more powers to the country's three language regions -- Dutch, French and German -- that could form the basis for a coalition government.

He called for "a last-chance" round-table later on Wednesday.

Eight parties are involved in the talks but not the largest party in northern Flanders, the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).

Albert II warned in July that the continuing deadlock, which has seen Belgium boast the dubious record of being the longest country in the world 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 in July.

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.

© 2011 AFP

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