Belgium seeks to close crises ahead of EU spell


Perhaps learning from the Czech Republic’s experience, Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy says he will strive to solve the country’s internal tensions by mid-2010 in order to avoid potential problems during the country’s EU presidency in the second half of the year.

Speaking on national radio on Saturday (25 July), Van Rompuy said he was optimistic about ongoing constitutional reform in Belgium. 

The reform will be completed by March or June 2010 “at the latest”, he further indicated, just before Belgium assumes the EU’s six-month rotating presidency on 1 July.

“During the [EU] presidency, we cannot take the risk of a political crisis,” Van Rompuy stressed. 

The Flemish Christian Democrat, who succeeded Yves Leterme as prime minister in December last year, said he expected his term to end in 2011, adding that he was looking forward to working “hand in hand” with Leterme, who was recently appointed foreign minister. 

“My duty, my mission, as I see it, ends in 2011,” Van Rompuy said. 

Leterme took office when Karel de Gucht left the foreign ministry to take Louis Michel’s seat as EU development commissioner, after the latter was recently elected to the European Parliament (EURACTIV 08/07/09). 

State reform negotiations to be relaunched 

Since he took over as prime minister in December last year, little progress has been made in difficult negotiations between Flanders and Wallonia, the country’s two main regional entities, which have clashed over language issues. 

In Flanders, the Dutch-speaking side of the country – whose politicians are pushing for greater autonomy – the tone is more moderate than in 2007, Van Rompuy said. 

The prime minister was alluding to the 2007 federal elections, which saw the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V) and the nationalistic N-VA party (New Flemish Alliance) become the country’s most represented. Both parties campaigned for far-reaching reform of the Belgian state but this led to instability, which lasted until Van Rompuy took over in December 2008. 

On the Walloon side, Van Rompuy saw “better political will” to comprehensively reform the state, which most political observers say will eventually need to be done. 

“I think we can take a step, and a rather important step, in the reform of the state under this legislature. This would however happen in a phased manner,” the prime minister said. 

Turkey closes diplomatic row 

In the meantime, a diplomatic row opposing Belgium and Turkey appears to have ended after Ankara recalled its ambassador. 

Fual Tanlay, Turkey’s ambassador in Belgium, recently said the Belgians ought to experience a terrorist attack in order to better understand the threat of terrorism. 

“God willing, this will happen to them one day. Then they would understand what terrorism means,” Tanlay told the Turkish daily Hürriyet. The ambassador was reacting to a decision by the Belgian court of appeal regarding extreme-left group DHKP-C, which he found unsatisfactory. 

According to press reports quoted by EURACTIV Turkey, the country’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu has now recalled Tanlay, who has lost his rank of ambassador and will serve as a counsellor in the ministry of foreign affairs. Murat Ersavci, until now Turkey’s envoy to Australia, is due to replace him, according to press reports. 

Belgium's political institutions are complex, with most of the political power organised around the need to represent the main cultural communities. Consecutive revisions of the constitution (in 1970, 1980, 1988 and 1993) established a unique federal state with political power segregated into three levels – the federal government, the three language communities (Flemish, French and German) and the three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region). 

In 2007-2008, community tensions brought about a political crisis of such magnitude that many observers speculated about a possible partition of Belgium. To defuse the crisis, a renewed effort to reform the constitution and re-balance power is currently underway. In 2008, another crisis related to Fortis bank accelerated the fall of Yves Leterme's government. 

The Council of Europe is currently monitoring the situation following the failure of the Flemish interior minister to appoint three mayors in municipalities in the Flemish region. Up until now, the Council of Europe has taken the view that the controversy is a political case against a background of an ongoing linguistic feud in Belgium. 

The Flemish authorities, for their part, have always insisted that the controversy is of a legal nature. The latest development saw the Council encourage the mayors to take the issue to court (EURACTIV 10/04/09). 

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