Belgium crisis ends but government faces uphill struggle

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Belgium swears in a government Tuesday after buckling to market pressure to end a record 541-day crisis, but the new team faces an uphill struggle to tackle problems at the root of the deadlock.

King Albert II anoints new Socialist premier Elio Di Rupo and his cabinet at a swearing-in ceremony later Tuesday ending one of Belgium's bleakest moments -- an 18-month marathon of political haggling that last summer drew even the sovereign out of his royal reserve.

"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."

As divisions sharpen between thriving Dutch northerners and the more down-at-heels French-speaking south, the country that plays host to global institutions such as the EU and NATO is struggling to remain united around a joint political and economic vision.

In much the same way prosperous Germany derides spendthrift Greece, the 6.5 million people of Flanders renege on taxes destined to the 4.5 million of southern Wallonia.

Notably absent from the six-party coalition built by Di Rupo, who will be the first openly gay premier of the country, is the biggest party in Flanders, the powerful separatist N-VA which pulled out of the lengthy coalition talks.

Yet Di Rupo will be Belgium's first French-speaking premier in more than three decades and the first Socialist at its helm since 1974.

He will also be one of only three -- with Austria and Denmark -- centre-left leaders attending this week's crucial EU summit.

"The new team, especially its leader, comes carrying a huge burden," said an editorialist in Flemish daily Gazet van Antwerpen.

"Belgians want to believe in fairy tales," quipped French daily Le Monde.

It took soaring borrowing costs and a Standard & Poor's downgrade from AA+ to AA late last month to jolt Belgian's feuding politicians to set aside their quarrels and clinch a deal between six parties which together wield a parliamentary majority.

Top of the agenda for Di Rupo when he outlines the new government's policy to parliament Wednesday will be 11.3 billion euros in budget cuts, the toughest austerity measures in 70 years.

With its debt at 96 percent of GDP last year, just behind Greece and Italy in the eurozone, the coalition has pledged to balance the books by 2015 but many economists say it may not achieve the 0.8 percent growth the budget foresees.

The government, an unlikely alliance of Socialists, Christian Democrats and Liberals from both sides of Belgium's language divide, also plans further devolution of powers to regional assemblies.

But having already lost a year a half to the haggling, Di Rupo has only two and a half left "which is very little to clean up public finances, adapt our socio-economic model to the 21st century and implement a reform of the state," said an editorial in the French daily Le Soir.

The future "will be anything but a picnic," added daily La Libre Belgique.

Di Rupo, a career politician with a rags-to-riches storybook life, also comes with a black mark -- his controversially poor Dutch.

His thick, laboured accent is all the talk in the media, particularly after mixing his verbs in a recent speech by calling on Belgians to drink (drinken) when he meant to say it was urgent (dringen) to agree to austerity.

"I'm going to work on it," Di Rupo promised. "I will reply in Dutch in parliament, even with mistakes."

"My Nigerian maid who's only been in the country for two years speaks better Dutch than Elio," said separatist N-VA leader Bart De Wever.

© 2011 AFP

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