Belgian parties seek way out of political impasse

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Belgium's feuding politicians agreed Friday to launch coalition talks to end a year-long political crisis which has tested the unity of a nation split between Dutch and French speakers.

The overnight announcement followed an unusually sombre warning from King Albert II, who said the deadlock threatened the country's economic and social well-being with negative repercussions for the European project as a whole.

The head of the francophone Socialists and favourite to become prime minister, Elio di Rupo, announced early Friday that four Flemish and four French-speaking parties were willing to begin talks to form a government.

Joelle Milquet, head of the centrist francophone CDH party, called it a "historic" step as the nation marked 405 days without a government following legislative elections in June 2010.

The breakthrough was reached after the Christian Democratic CD&V in Flanders decided to break ranks with the Dutch-speaking region's biggest party, the separatist N-VA, and join coalition talks that will start in mid-August.

"For the fisrt time, we have an agreement to enter into negotiations and for the first time the CD&V accepts to participate without the N-VA," Milquet said.

Support from the Christian Democrats, led by caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme, is crucial for any hope of forming a coalition that needs a two-thirds majority in parliament to pass reforms for Belgium's future.

The impasse has left Belgium with a dubious world record after it surpassed Iraq this year as the nation without a government for the longest time.

The king made an impassioned plea for a solution in his annual speech ahead of the divided country's national day on Thursday.

"Like many Belgians, I am distressed that it is taking the longest time in recent memory to form a government," he said.

"If this situation lasts much longer, it could negatively and concretely affect the economic and social well-being of every Belgian," said Albert II, who came to the thrown in 1993.

A founding member of the European Union, Belgium has often been considered an example of integration in Europe, with a Dutch-speaking community in the north and French-speakers in the south.

But it now risks becoming a symbol of division in the 27-nation EU as politicians in the wealthy northern region of Flanders and poorer Wallonia struggle to strike a deal to transfer more powers to the regions.

"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," the king said.

The eight political parties will still have to sort out their differences over social and economic reforms before forming a government.

Flemish parties have demanded more autonomy for their region in fiscal, employment and health policies.

Another sore point is the future of the districts around Brussels, the only officially bilingual region in the country.

Flemish parties want to strip language and voting rights of francophones who live in the capital's suburbs, which are located in Flanders.

"The balance remains fragile but we are pleased," said the head of francophone liberals, Charles Michel. "We have taken a step in the right direction."

© 2011 AFP

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