Belgium stares into abyss as coalition talks fail

Elio Di Rupo picnik.jpg

Belgium was again plunged into political crisis over the weekend as French-speaking Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo resigned from his mediator role as prime minister-in-waiting. Leading politicians are now openly talking about the prospect of breaking up the country.

King Albert II accepted Di Rupo's resignation and nominated one representative of each linguistic community – the Francophone speaker of the lower house of parliament, Andre Flahaut of the Socialist Party, and the speaker of the Senate, Danny Pieters of the Flemish separatist party N-VA – to lead mediation efforts to restart coalition talks.

Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish separatist N-VA party, who emerged as the largest political force in Flanders after general elections in June, said there was not enough agreement on key issues.

The future of the Belgian capital Brussels, which plays host to the EU institutions, appears to be one of the main stumbling blocks standing in the way of forming a new government.

Belgium currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

The redefinition of the electoral boundaries around the city has plagued national politics since 2007, with Flemish politicians keen to recall that the Belgian capital is located on its side of the 'linguistic border'.

On Sunday, thousands of Flemish separatists took part in an annual demonstration, which consists of symbolically encircling Brussels by bike to remind locals that they are surrounded by Flanders.

Walloon politicians, on the other hand, stress the bilingual status of the city and are quick to point out that over 80% of its population is French-speaking. During the negotiations, they asked for more financing for Brussels and an extension of its boundaries to connect it with Wallonia to the south.

But these demands were rejected by De Wever. "Dramatising the situation is not helpful. Politicians must show their sense of responsibility," he said.

Meanwhile, Laurette Onkelinx, a Socialist Party leader, warned on Sunday that citizens should "get ready for the break-up of Belgium".

"When I look at the letters I receive, loads of people think it's possible. [Our] politicians have to be prepared," said Onkelinx, who is federal minister for health and social affairs in Belgium's caretaker government.

Belgium's political institutions are complex, with most 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 separated between 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 the 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 first government. 

The capital Brussels is a majority French-speaking city, but its periphery is Flemish. The 100,000 or so French speakers who live on the city's margins enjoy special privileges, like being able to cast their ballot in the bi-lingual electoral district of Brussels-Hal-Vilvoorde (BHV). 

But Dutch-speaking parties oppose this privilege and have called for the district to be split into separate entities between Brussels proper and the Flemish municipalities.

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