Belgium coalition talks back to square one

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The political crisis in Belgium hit a new low yesterday (4 October) when Flemish separatist party N-VA announced "the end of the story" after 114 days of negotiations on state reform that were expected to pave the way for a new government to take office.

King Albert II is today expected to receive the two negotiators, André Flahaut, a French-speaking socialist who chairs the lower chamber of parliament, and Danny Pieters, the Senate's N-VA-affiliated president. 

Flahaut and Pieters are expected to report on the failure of their mission. As reported by the Belgian press, the King will need to show a lot of imagination to find a new basis on which to relaunch the negotiations.

The N-VA in Flanders and the Socialist Party in Wallonia won the parliamentary elections on 13 June, and the two parties are expected to negotiate state reform prior to forming a new government.

But the state reform talks have been complicated by the sheer number of participants around the table. On the French-speaking side, they have involved the Socialist Party (PS), centre-right CDH and the Greens (Ecolo). The liberal MR party and its radical francophone faction, the FDF, were left out. On the Flemish side, four parties were represented: the N-VA, the centre-right CD&V, socialists SPA and the ecologists of the Groen party.

The three French-speaking parties participating in the negotiations called the N-VA's walk-out "irresponsible".

Speaking on TV channel RTL, N-VA leader Bart De Wever retorted: "We have not received a single answer to the main questions asked by the Flemish. And if they want to blame me [for the collapse of the talks], then so be it," he added.

In another interview, he labelled the concessions made by the Walloons "garden gnomes" in the eyes of the Flemish electorate.

According to reports, De Wever has hardened his camp's stance that the country's three regions – Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels – should be given the right to collect the majority of income tax themselves. At present, income tax is collected by the federal state, which then re-distributes the proceeds.

"We are facing a party which wants no future for Belgium," said Laurette Onkelinx, a Socialist leader. "We really have to ask ourselves how to face this nationalism, which wants to see a community down on its knees," she added.

Ecolo leader Jean-Michel Javaux said the N-VA was motivated by a will to see the people of Wallonia and Brussels shorn of any financial muscle.

French-speaking leaders did not rule out a scenario in which Belgium would disintegrate, but insisted that splitting the country also should be negotiated.

Belgium 'clinically dead'

Eric Van Rompuy, a Flemish parliamentarian from the CD&V party, who is the brother of EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, said in an interview that Belgium was "clinically dead".

The problem, according to political analysts, is that N-VA has the support of CD&V. The King, at least in theory, could change the partners around the table and eliminate the N-VA. However, as political scientist Pascal Delwitt said, such a formula would be extremely difficult to manage despite being a "mathematical possibility".

Early elections remain an option. But according to various opinions, early elections would only strengthen the N-VA, as well as the Socialist Party in Wallonia.

Delwitt said that instead of calling early elections, the King could appoint a mediator with the role of gathering all Belgian parties around the table, and negotiate reform of the state backed by a government of "national unity".

Surreally, the dramatic Belgian events have had little impact on the Belgian EU Presidency. The collapse of the talks in fact coincided with a high-profile EU-Asia summit, gathering the leaders of 48 nations and hosted by the King and caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme.

The Belgian press also notes that the day De Wever announced the collapse of the talks also coincided with the 180th anniversary of the Belgian state. Some went as far as saying that De Wever, who is a historian by training, did not choose when to announce "the end of the story" by chance.

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a nationalist party, secured a sweeping victory in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium in national elections held on 13 June, paving the way for more powers to be delegated to the regions in the country that hosts the EU institutions.

Flemish nationalist gains were matched by a large victory for the socialists in French-speaking Wallonia, with both parties now expected to spearhead government coalition talks.

The early elections were triggered after Flemish liberal party Open-VLD decided to leave the government over a dispute between French- and Dutch-speaking parties regarding electoral boundaries surrounding the capital, Brussels (EURACTIV 27/04/10).

Belgian King Albert II told Prime Minister Yves Leterme to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government was formed. On 8 July, the king appointed the leader of the French-speaking socialist party, Elio Di Rupo, to lead talks to form a new government. Di Rupo's effort collapsed in early September.

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