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Belgian report
by Euro Reporter
2011-09-14 07:09:26
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450 days after election, still no government

Belgium hit a new milestone Monday — 450 days without a government — but still no one appears to be in any big hurry to resolve the situation. Europe's financial crisis and feeble economic growth may scare governments from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea, but in Belgium it is a sideshow. Talks on a new Belgian government, which have been going on since the June 13, 2010 election, were at a standstill Monday for a third day running. Why? Because Green Party negotiator Jean-Michel Javaux — also the mayor of Amay, a small eastern town — had to attend a town meeting to vote on, among other things, a new police car and a computer.

Prime Minister Yves Leterme, meanwhile, was on a visit Sunday to Israel, assuring its leaders that all's well in Belgium. But that's not really true — intractable divisions between Belgium's Dutch and French-speaking camps are looming over the nation. And because anything can become a linguistic spat, Belgium has had 45 governments in 67 years. Francophone Socialist Elio di Rupo is the latest politician trying to form a new government — and he has had 10 predecessors since the 2010 election. After 15 months of impasse, most Belgians seem resigned to Leterme's government of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists staying on as a "caretaker" cabinet handling routine business.

But others are stirring. Last week, judges and prosecutors in Antwerp scolded politicians for their inaction at a conference in Belgium's second city. "Political parties are leading us to the demise of our democracy," said Public Prosecutor Yves Liegeois. Piet Van den Bon, a Labor Court justice, claimed that illegal immigrants were pocketing undeserved handouts — a situation that "feeds a growing sense of injustice. The population expects from a government, especially in times of crisis, a readiness to act." Just three subway stops from Brussels' idle government complex, the headquarters of the European Union watches Belgium with unease but says publicly it retains "full confidence" in the nation's ability to enact finance reforms. However, already a Sept. 10 deadline for government negotiators to set a draft budget for 2012 has slipped to Sept. 30. Rooted in history and economic disparities, language spats have long dominated politics in this country of 6.6 million Dutch-speakers and 4.1 million Francophone. Everything — from political parties to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots — comes in Dutch- and French-speaking versions.

Dutch-speaking Flanders, Belgium's northern half, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south already have achieved self-rule in the past 30 years in urban development, environment, agriculture, employment, energy, culture, sports and other areas. Carving up Belgium is a cherished dream of many in Flanders but a nightmare for poorer Francophone Wallonia. Flanders has half the unemployment of Wallonia and a 25 percent higher per capita income. Some in Flanders are pushing for self-rule in justice, health and social security — but Walloon politicians fear that ending social security as a federal responsibility will be the end of the nation. The most acute problem in the government talks is the fate of a bilingual Brussels-area voting district that spills into Dutch-speaking Flanders. It was ruled illegal by a court in 2003 as only the city of Brussels is officially bilingual. Francophone opposes a breakup so as not to lose Francophone voters who have moved to Brussels' Dutch-speaking suburbs. Watching the fray is Bart de Wever. His New Flemish Alliance party, the biggest winner in the 2010 vote, seeks an "orderly breakup" of Belgium and is watching with relish as the Socialist, Christian Democrat and Green parties’ founder in the government talks.


Belgium goes pantless for pigs

With their boxer-shorts and assorted underpants hanging on a clothesline, Belgian animal rights campaigners Friday staged a brief-free “Let-em hang!” rally in solidarity with castrated pigs. The pantless daylong protest called by animal welfare group Gaia aims to halt the pain endured by the five million piglets castrated in Belgium each year.

“It’s extremely cruel,” said Michel Vandenbosch who organised the “Let'em hang!” campaign for men to go without underwear for a day. Wearing “I love pigs” T-shirts at a rally symbolically held by Belgium’s most famous landmark -- the Manneken Pis sculpture of a small boy urinating -- campaigners urged farmers and authorities to end piglet pain.

“You can feel how precious they are and how you wouldn’t want to be in the pig’s place,” said a man who gave his name only as Thierry. A few days after birth, male piglets are deprived of their testicles to prevent the rare but possible occurrence of a foul smell when pork is cooked. The group says the problem could be fixed by hormones rather than castration.


Belgium's PM to quit to run for OECD job

Belgium's caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme on Tuesday announced a bid to run for deputy OECD chief as his language-divided country faces a record-breaking political crisis. In a statement, Leterme said he "confirmed that the secretary general of the OECD Angel Gurria is proposing him as deputy secretary general of the organisation". "It is up to the representatives of the OECD member states to approve the proposal next Friday", he added.

Leterme said that should he get the job at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, his resignation date "will be determined by taking into account his current responsibilities as caretaker prime minister" of Belgium. The country has been run since April 2010 by a caretaker cabinet due to a deep split between northern Flemish Dutch-speaking separatists and southern French-speakers that have left the country without a government since June elections last year failed to produce a workable coalition.

Belgium this month hit 450 days without a government as talks resumed to end a political deadlock testing the unity of the nation. Elio Di Rupo, head of the francophone Socialists who won a majority at the 2010 polls in southern Wallonia, is currently heading talks aimed at ending the impasse on the basis of an agreement to devolve more powers to the country's three language regions -- Dutch, French and German.

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