Pressure grows on Belgium's fragile state

By John Lichfield

The Independent - Published: 11 September 2007

Concern is growing over the survival of Belgium as a federal state after three months without an agreed government.

The Belgian French-language newspaper, Le Soir, asked "Shall we divide?" in a headline yesterday. The French centre-left newspaper, Libération, asked "What if Belgium breaks up?"

Most senior politicians on both sides of Belgium's Dutch-French language divide say speculation about the 177-year-old country's demise is premature. Although three months of fruitless negotiations on a new government is exceptional, a deal is likely in the end, they say. Herman van Rompuy, a veteran Christian Democrat appointed to mediate, spoke to King Albert yesterday but refused to comment on the progress of his work.

A debate on independence for the 60 per cent of Dutch-speakers in the north of the country began in Belgium's Flemish regional parliament yesterday. However, the motion was tabled by the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party, and other political groups – including those which support more autonomy – said they would not speak or vote in favour.

The crisis began three months ago when Yves Leterme, leader of the Flemish Christian Democrat party, topped the poll in national parliamentary elections. M. Leterme, in alliance with a smaller pro-independence party, had campaigned for a substantial weakening of Belgian state powers in what is already a loose federal system. Transport, housing, agriculture, education and culture are already controlled by five regional and linguistic parliaments and administrations. M. Leterme wanted the federal state to cede part of its responsibility for taxation, social security, economic policy, justice, immigration and nationality.

The Dutch-speaking north is more prosperous, and has much lower unemployment, than the French-speaking south. Flemish voters, who tend to vote to the right, have complained for years that they are subsidising "lazy" French-speaking Wallonia, which votes heavily to the left and centre. Wallonia is, however, beginning to recover.

Belgian political tradition demanded that M. Leterme, as leader of the largest party in parliament, should be asked to try to form a national government. His talks with French-language parties collapsed in late August.

Even the French-speaking liberal party and the centrists, under Joëlle Milquet, refused to agree to M. Leterme's demands.

In an interview with Libération yesterday, Mme Milquet said there was "clearly a difference in degree of support for the Belgian federation" between French and Dutch speakers. However, she said she believed that a majority of Dutch-speakers still had a "minimum of understanding of the common interest" of the two communities.

In a recent opinion poll, 43 per cent of Dutch-speaking Belgians said they supported the idea of an independent Flemish state.

For the past three decades, Belgium has had a series of mostly Dutch-speaking prime ministers who were able to command the trust of both of the country's main ethnic and linguistic communities. Political commentators say that, with the emergence of M. Leterme at the head of the Flemish Christian Democrats, that dynasty of leaders able to straddle the divide seems to have ended.

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