Divided Belgium takes new stab at forming government

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After six months of failed attempts to put together a government, Belgium's political leaders this week take a fresh stab at ending the langage-divided nation's longest-ever crisis.

Socialist politician Johan Vande Lamotte, the latest in a string of special mediators appointed by King Albert II to end the impasse, on Monday issues a new proposal geared to bridge the gulf between the country's Dutch and French speakers.

His blueprint for a compromise will be put to the seven political parties who fought an election last June that produced no outright winner, but gave a clear lead to the independence-minded New Flemish Alliance, the N-VA.

Representing the once rurally-poor but now far wealthier Dutch-speaking majority of 6.2 million, the N-VA complains of footing the bill for Belgium's 4.5 million French.

But its demands for greater autonomy for Flanders and more power over the public purse have run into a wall of resistance from the French-speaking Socialists who won the majority among French voters in the June 13 poll.

With no apparent progress towards a workable coalition after 204 days of caretaker government, there are growing fears that the tiny country that plays host to global powerhouses such as NATO and the EU, might split in two.

And the country is under potential threat from 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.

The four Flemish and three French-speaking parties involved in negotiations are essentially divided over how much fiscal authority to cede from the federal government to the regions.

The seven will announce within days if they are ready to continue talks based on Monday's proposal by the Flemish politician -- meaning a coalition government remains weeks away.

At Christmas, the spectre of implosion sent Belgium's figurehead sovereign stepping rarely but squarely into the political arena to make an impassioned plea for conciliation.

"The time has come where true courage is defined by a resolute search for a compromise that unites, not something that exacerbates," he said. "We should have the courage to be artisans of peace."

His plea came days after debt ratings agency Standard & Poor's warned it could cut Belgium's credit score within six months if feuding politicians failed to form a government.

Amid market jitters over the fiscal health of weaker eurozone nations after the bailouts of Greece and Ireland, S&P said Belgium's prolonged domestic political uncertainty "poses risks to its government's credit standing."

NV-A chief Bart De Wever meanwhile dubbed Belgium a failed state and accused the French-speaking Wallonia region of being addicted to subsidies.

"Belgium no longer works. It is a nation that has failed," the nationalist leader told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine last month. "Ultimately the Belgian state has no future."

"We are for solidarity, including financially. But if we disburse money to Wallonia, it must be done under normal conditions," he told the magazine. "This money cannot be an injection like a drug for a junkie."

De Wever's suggestion for reform notably proposed enabling the country's three regions -- Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels -- to take over federal tax-gathering powers to reinforce regional autonomy.

But his suggestion left Flanders to grab the lion's share of the 45 percent of tax revenue no longer in the hands of the federal state, causing fears among the francophones that poorer Wallonia would fall by the wayside.

Other issues yet to be sorted include the rights of French-speakers living on the outskirts of Brussels, a city that is officially bilingual but located inside Flanders.

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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