Flemish separatists hold up bid to end Belgium crisis

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Hopes of a quick end to Belgium's longest political crisis evaporated Wednesday when a powerful Flemish separatist party rejected a new bid to kickstart government coalition talks.

After more than six months without a government, leaders of the language-divided country had a Wednesday deadline to announce a resumption of talks on a new political compromise to bridge the gulf between Dutch and French-speakers.

On the table was a 60-page proposal to reform the Belgian state, offering each of the country's communities more autonomy in line with demands from the powerful independence-minded New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).

But the N-VA, which won the top score at the country's indecisive elections in June, said it had "fundamental remarks", or objections, on the text.

Leaving the door half-open and half-shut, it said: "We will see if these remarks are acceptable to the other parties. We will then conclude whether there is any sense in engaging in final negotiations."

Seven political parties -- four from Dutch-speaking Flanders, three from French-speaking Wallonia -- slated to form a coalition government had been handed the proposal this week by a go-between named by Albert II.

The country's second biggest political formation, the French-speaking Socialists, were still to make their response known. A second Flemish party also expressed reservations while others said "yes, but".

The N-VA picked up a whopping 28 percent in Flanders at the June 13 elections that failed to produce an outright winner, raising the spectre of a potential 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.

It 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.

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

The latest proposal, drafted by Flemish Socialist Johan Vande Lanotte on a request from King Albert II, has not been made public. And this week's talks were held in a whirl of secretive meetings behind closed doors.

According to press leaks, the compromise text proposes to transfer around 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.

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.

© 2011 AFP

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