Belgium mired in language-driven political crisis

6th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Divided Belgium headed into political and economic fog Thursday after leaders of its Dutch and French communities missed a fresh chance at ending three years of instability.

After months of failed efforts to set up a coalition government, the latest bid to sit politicians at the same table flopped Wednesday when the country's powerful Flemish separatists said "Neen", or No, to a fresh compromise bid.

The collapse of the much-anticipated negotiations, geared to give the country a government after a June 13 election failed to produce a clear winner, has irritated both the press and analysts.

While the same caretaker cabinet that skilfully presided the European Union through six months of debt crises keeps the buses and trains running on time, fears are mounting of looming economic strife.

With debt hovering just below the 100 percent mark of GDP, ratings agencies and the nation's central bank have warned of a potential threat from the financial markets if feuding politicians fail to strike a deal any time soon.

The seven political parties -- four from Dutch-speaking Flanders, three from French-speaking Wallonia -- slated to form a coalition had been handed a Wednesday deadline to accept or reject a new proposal to bridge the gulf between the language communities.

On the table was a 60-page proposal to reform the state that offered the 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 June elections, said it had "fundamental remarks", or objections, on the text.

French-language papers predictably slammed the rejection, with daily La Derniere Heure hitting the stands with two empty white pages in protest.

But even the Dutch press was in mourning. Flemish nationalists "are turning their backs on compromise, seeking confrontation as the majority seeks to impose its views on the minority," said Het Nieuwsblad.

Belgium had hit "a wall" in its efforts to define a federal model acceptable to the country's divided language communities, said the up-market De Standaard.

As nationalist sentiment grows in Dutch-speaking Flanders, Belgium has been in political crisis on and off since 2007.

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.

Because the latest proposal was drafted by a Flemish Socialist Johan Vande Lanotte, taking into account many N-VA demands, hopes were high it would sign on despite its right-of-centre leanings.

The latest compromise proposes to transfer around a quarter of the federal government's income tax revenue -- around 15 billion euros -- to Belgium's regional governments.

It also gives the regions, including a small German-speaking community of 74,000 people, more power over employment, health and welfare payments.

But at the heart of the continuing conflict between Flanders and Wallonia is the fate of the country's capital, host to the EU and NATO.

The largely French-speaking city of one million people, where road-signs and the administration are bilingual, lies in Flanders.

Despite its prestige as capital of Europe, its coffers are in poor shape and unemployment is at 20 percent.

In line with demands from the French-speaking parties, the latest compromise suggests donating 15 percent of taxes raised by the regions to the capital, a suggestion frowned upon across the language border.

Also to be sorted is the status of some 130,000 French-speakers living on the outskirts of the city, who for 40 years have enjoyed special voting and legal rights.

Hopes are that Vande Lanotte may yet rewrite parts of his compromise, bringing the seven back to the table.

"To have refused to say yes to this proposal is seriously irresponsible," said the daily Le Soir in an editorial.

© 2011 AFP

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