What next for Belgium as crisis deepens

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Belgium headed into political fog Friday as the country's largest party rejected a promising offer to end a crisis that has left the nation in the hands of a caretaker government for over a year.

High hopes of ending a 13-month impasse in the language-divided country collapsed in gloom Thursday when the separatist Flemish N-VA rejected a position paper drafted by its French Socialist rivals as a basis for setting up a governing coalition.

After months of trying negotiations, the move underlined the widening gulf between the wealthier Dutch-speaking 6.2 million people of Flanders in the north, and the 4.5 milllion French-speakers of struggling Wallonia.

"The N-VA no longer wants Belgium," said deputy Socialist party leader Laurette Onkelinx, echoing fears of a looming breakup of a country at the heart of Europe.

Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo, whose party came second behind the separatist N-VA in an inconclusive June 13, 2010 election, was scheduled to meet King Albert II later Friday to discuss next steps.

But the latest setback leaves no obvious exit strategy.

Flemish editorialists said a snap election loomed.

Di Rupo and hardline N-VA leader Bart De Wever would never sit side-by-side in a government, said commentator Liesbeth Van Impe in the daily Het Nieuwsblad, who forecast an early election.

"De Wever has given Di Rupo, with all due respect, the middle finger."

At a news conference Thursday, the Flemish separatist leader offered to continue negotiations with the remainder of the country's parties but scuppered Di Rupo's 110-page paper.

"With the best will in the world I do not believe negotiations on the basis of this note can lead to success," said De Wever, who took the N-VA to victory with 28 percent of the vote in Flanders last year.

Recent polls show his unswerving call for more devolution to Belgium's already powerful language-based regions gaining ground, with his popularity tipped at over 33 percent.

The French-language Le Soir newspaper said De Wever's "Neen", or "No", to the latest bid to run the country jointly shows "Belgium is not worth the effort any more."

"We are close to an early election," political scientist Dave Sinardet told AFP. "If not we'll remain in this no-man's land, going round in circles -- but it can't go on for ever."

With Belgium's debt hovering near 100 percent of its GDP, Di Rupo's platform called for massive cuts in public spending.

Ratings agencies have warned of cuts in the country's AA+ rating failing a lasting political deal.

Di Rupo, who had said N-VA agreement was key given the party's strength at the polls, had also called for new devolution to regional and community authorities, which would be the sixth administrative reform in the country in 40 years.

But liberal-thinking De Wever lashed out at his rival's call for more taxes and said the separatists wanted more devolution.

Some commentators opined Friday that Belgium needed outside help to move ahead.

"Time for an international mediator," tweeted Flemish politician Jan Roegiers. "We will never manage otherwise."

© 2011 AFP

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