Deal reached for 3-month interim government in Belgium
Herald Tribune - December 19, 2007

Belgian leaders cobbled together a five-party interim government Wednesday that will tackle urgent economic issues, ending a six-month political deadlock.

The crisis had revealed how differently Dutch-speaking and Francophone Belgians see the future of their bilingual nation.

The interim government, agreed upon in all-night talks, will be in office for three months. In addition to addressing economic issues that were neglected during the deadlock, the timeframe will also give more time to agree on constitutional reforms designed to grant more autonomy to Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia — an issue of much controversy.

Guy Verhofstadt, a Dutch-speaking Liberal and outgoing premier, will be sworn in Friday as head of the interim Cabinet of Christian Democrats and Liberals — each split into Dutch- and French-speaking camps — and Francophone Socialists.

He will hand over his post to a Dutch-speaking Christian Democrat in March, officials said.

Belgium has been without a permanent government since the June 10 elections in which the Liberals and Christian Democrats won 81 of the 150 seats.

But since June, their efforts to form a government collapsed repeatedly in self-rule disputes.

By taking on board Francophone Socialists, the incoming government will command a two-thirds legislative majority and give French-speakers more weight in the regional autonomy debate.

"This government has a broad majority that can enact constitutional reforms" in the years ahead, said Jo Vandeurzen, the leader of Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats.

Since the 1960s, the 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones have little by little acquired significant powers of self-rule.

Today, almost everything — from cable companies, broadcasting and health insurance to political parties, pigeon racing clubs and the Red Cross — is split into Dutch- and French-speaking camps. An east-west "language frontier" slices Belgium in half, leaving the capital Brussels as the nation's only officially bilingual region.

The drive for more self rule continues unabated in Flanders where many grouse their wealthier, service-based economy subsidizes Wallonia. Dutch-speakers view its dilapidated cities and 14 percent unemployment rate — double the Flemish rate — as the legacy of ruinous socialist rule that is so at odds with the mood of reform-minded Flanders.

But politicians in poorer Wallonia accuse Flemish politicians of trying to wrest social security from the hands of the federal government which, they say, would mean the end of Belgium as a federal nation.

The five parties of the interim government plan to use the next 90 days to agree on constitutional reforms to grant more regional autonomy.

Since the June elections, Verhofstadt's center-left coalition of Liberals and Socialists has stayed on in a caretaker capacity with limited powers of government.

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