/ 7 November 2007

Belgium govt talks on brink of collapse

Long-running talks to form a new Belgian government were on the brink of collapse on Wednesday as tensions flared between Flemish and Francophone lawmakers over the sensitive issue of voting rights.

A move by Flemish MPs to end the right of French speakers in the Flemish suburbs of mainly Francophone Brussels to vote outside their locality prompted a walk out by their French-speaking colleagues.

”Clearly we cannot accept that one Belgian community so brutally and aggressively treats another community,” Francophone Socialist lawmaker Yvan Mayeur told Belgian television channel RTBF. ”We are in something close to a crisis of regime,” he added.

The Flemish want the electoral district comprising Brussels and the surrounding Flemish-majority suburbs to be split in two, effectively preventing suburban French-speakers voting for Francophone politicians in Brussels.

The technical but highly emotional issue has eclipsed broader talks to form a new ruling coalition nearly five months since a June 10 general election failed to produce a new government.

The Francophone politicians have blamed the impasse on Flemish would-be prime minister Yves Leterme, saying he lacks the authority to lead coalition negotiations.

”Yves Leterme no longer has the authority to relaunch the institutional debate,” Francophone negotiator Olivier Maingain told RTBF.

Leterme has already thrown in the towel to form a government once since the June 10 general election, but resumed his efforts at King Albert II’s request.

Although he is perfectly bilingual, Leterme is hardly seen as an honest broker by Francophones, whom he has ridiculed in the past for their perceived failure to learn Dutch.

Leterme’s Flemish Christian Democrats, which came out on top in the general election, campaigned at the time for more powers, especially on the economy, to be devolved to regional governments.

However, the issue is highly sensitive in the poorer Wallonia, the Francophone southern half of Belgium, because many French-speaking politicians fear it would mark the first step to a possible split.

As the deadlock grinds on, speculation has grown that political divisions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish, who make up 60% of the population, and the French-speaking Walloons could eventually lead to Belgium breaking up.

That is a prospect that many people in Flanders appear to want, according to a survey published on Monday in Flemish newspaper Het Laatse Nieuws, which found that 44,4% of Flemish want to break away.

Although the outgoing government of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt continues handle day-to-day business, new leadership is increasingly needed to undertake new policies such as drafting the 2008 budget. — Sapa-AFP