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Belgian report Belgian report
by Euro Reporter
2010-06-22 08:44:56
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Divisions Expected to Widen After Belgian Vote

Belgians will vote Sunday in elections that are expected to showcase the tensions between French and Flemish speakers that have prompted speculation that this country of 10.6 million will eventually break up.  With the separatist New Flemish Alliance, led by Bart De Wever, expected to do well in Flanders — the northern, Flemish-speaking part of the country — the voting Sunday would herald new political uncertainty.

Forming a government should take until the early autumn, which means that Belgium would take over the rotating presidency of the European Union in July with a caretaker administration. Such political deadlock would hurt efforts to cut government spending while again raising the question of whether the country can hold together. Significantly, Mr. De Wever appears to have made Flemish independence a more mainstream force by sapping support from parties like the Vlaams Belang, which is identified with the far right. “It will take a long time to negotiate a coalition agreement,” said Lieven De Winter, a professor of politics at the Université Catholique de Louvain. “I don’t see any fast solution.”

Such turmoil would be greeted with indifference by many Belgians. Many powers are already devolved to the regional level, limiting the effect of the federal government on the lives of voters. Much of the country has also come to view the prime minister’s office as something of a revolving door. In 2007, it took 192 days to form a temporary government and, since those elections, the current prime minister, Yves Leterme, has held the post twice and offered his resignation three times. Though a stable government was established under Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, this was a brief interlude that ended when he became the European Union’s presidential figurehead at the end of last year. Belgium is divided between Flanders, the richer and more populous area, and the more economically disadvantaged, French-speaking southern portion, called Wallonia. There is also a small German-speaking community. Tensions are exacerbated by the fact that, historically, French speakers dominated Belgium, which was created in 1830.

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Belgium’s divide widens after separatist poll win


Belgium faced political and economic limbo yesterday as right-wing Flemish separatist and French-speaking Socialist election winners sized each other up going into entrenched talks. With markets sniffing a deepening public finance crisis at the heart of Europe following sea-change results from Sunday’s elections, observers doubted whether the clash of political, economic and linguistic ideologies could even be bridged over the coming months.  King Albert II began the protracted process of meeting party leaders from Belgium’s Dutch-speaking majority in affluent Flanders and the poorer francophones of Wallonia, where polls combine to produce federal Belgian results.


While the biggest issue is what kind of country Belgium is to become, with the Flemish pushing for the loosest of federal ties to be retained, much of the fighting will revolve around how to fix state finances.  "If our country stays several months without a government, it’s our credit rating that will suffer," warned Paul Soete, head of Belgium’s technology employer’s federation Agoria.  "Belgium’s public net debt is likely to go through 100% of GDP within the next year or so, and (the federal state’s) financing requirements are among the largest in Europe this year and next," Frankfurt-based Goldman Sachs economist Erik Nielsen said.  Official results released yesterday backed up New Flemish Alliance (NVA) leader Bart De Wever’s victory declaration.


Republican De Wever, 39, ultimately wants independence, and in the first instance, full fiscal control. His party won the largest number of seats, 27 in the 150-member lower Belgian federal house, as well as the largest share of the vote in Flanders – 28.2%.  The Socialists secured 26 seats, with 36.6% of the vote across the other two federal regions, Wallonia and officially bilingual Brussels, well ahead of Leterme’s Christian Democrats, who picked up 17 seats on 17.6%.

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Crunch talks after separatist poll shock


Belgium's right-wing Flemish separatists and left-wing francophone unionists began tortuous negotiations Monday to resolve the country's future and its finances a day after sea-change elections. As concerns grew that Belgium could split along linguistic lines and markets sensed weakness at the heart of debt-laden Europe, observers doubted whether deep linguistic, political and economic rifts could be bridged. King Albert II took the first steps by meeting outgoing caretaker prime minister Yves Leterme and the shock victor of Sunday's vote, 39-year-old republican New Flemish Alliance (NVA) chief Bart De Wever.

De Wever -- who turned up at the palace without wearing a tie -- ultimately wants independence for Belgium's Dutch-speaking majority in the affluent northern Flanders region, and for now wants full fiscal control. The king later hosted the Socialist leader of the French-speaking Walloon minority, Elio Di Rupo. Openly homosexual Rupo is the favourite to become prime minister -- which would make him the first francophone to hold the post since the 1970s -- after De Wever indicated he would not be a candidate. "No, Belgium is not on the verge of splitting up, even if one could get that impression from the outside," Rupo was quoted by the website of Le Soir newspaper as telling a press conference.

As voters digested Flemish demands to re-draw state powers and the media wondered whether any kind of compromise could be reached in coming months, the country faced an uncertain future. While the Flemish want only the loosest of ties to be retained at federal level, much of the fighting will revolve around the state finances. In Overijse, an NVA stronghold near Brussels where municipal authorities did deals with property agents to keep francophones out, Flemish voters said people "no longer want a large part of their money to go to Wallonia," according to Dutch speaker Eliane Bergiers. Francine Beyens, a retired French teacher, says she has detected "animosity going back years" in Overijse and that French-speakers have been driven out by wealthier Flemish-speakers. "There are fewer of us, simply because we have less money," she said. De Wever's party tapped successfully into Flemish concerns, although leaders in poorer, southern Wallonia are expected to fight hard for a shared welfare state to be retained. Belgium has had four governments and three prime ministers since its last general election in 2007.


      
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