Saturday

28th May 2022

Belgian coalition talks collapse

  • The caretaker government is set to stay in place for now (Photo: EUobserver)

Talks on forming a new government in Belgium collapsed over the weekend leading a series of French-speaking politicians to raise the normally-taboo subject of a possible break-up of the country.

King Albert on Saturday (4 September) accepted the resignation of French-speaking Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo as lead negotiator after he failed to bring the seven-party talks to an agreement on reforming the state, a precondition for establishing a coalition government.

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Mr Di Rupo is the second mediator to fail in the task since elections just under three months ago. Bart de Wever, the leader of the devolution-minded Flemish party, the N-VA, which won the 13 June poll resigned from the task in July.

The King has now appointed 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 N-VA to try to kickstart the negotiations again.

The discussions have focussed on three issues - the future of francophone suburbs in Brussels that lie within Dutch-speaking Flanders (the issue that caused the collapse of the last government in April), a new federal financing law and the refinancing of the nation's capital Brussels. This last matter is causing the most friction in recent weeks.

The issues go to the heart of relations between richer Dutch-speaking Flanders wanting more power for the communities and subsidy-dependent French-speaking Wallonia which fears devolution will see it lose out economically.

With talk on the breakup of the country normally the preserve of Flemish politicians, it is French-speaking politicians who this time have stolen the media march.

Francophone Socialist Laurette Onkelinx told La Derniere Heure: "Let's hope it doesn't come to that because if we split, it will be the weakest who will pay the heaviest price."

"On the other hand, we can no longer ignore that among a large part of the Flemish population, it's their wish. So yes, we have to get ready for the break-up of Belgium."

Philippe Moureaux, another leading Francophone socialist, said Belgium was on the verge of a "progressive organisation of separation" while Rudy Demotte, head of the Wallonia state government, told RTBF radio that "all options" are now open.

Tactics?

Flemish papers have suggested that the comments are more of a tactic as negotiations go to the wire, particularly over the revised financing of debt-ridden Brussels, with Flemish politicians calling for clearer commitments from the Francophones such as linking financial reform of Brussels with overall reform of the state.

De Standaard, a Flemish newspaper, quotes N-VA politician Phillipe Muyters as saying that if French-speaking politicians "take their responsibility" in negotiations then their position becomes much more difficult.

An unnamed Flemish politician is said by the newspaper to have referred the statements as "blatant bar talk" and likening the Francophones to a toddler bent on destroying what is before them because they have not got their way.

French-speaking politicians argue they have made great concessions to the wishes of the Flemish parties.

Meanwhile, according to Marc Eyskens, from the Flemish Christian Democrats CD&V, agreement is not far off.

"The splitting of Belgium, a country so intricate, is impossible. By contrast, the secession of Flanders is more probable, with the difficulties that that entails as much as with regards to Brussels, which Flanders would lose, as regards to the European Union, of which it would not be a member," he says.

Lengthy coalition negotiations are not new for Belgium. The last round took almost nine months. However, the negotiations are particularly under the microscope at the moment because Belgium is supposed to be running the day-to-day affairs of the European Union, as the rotating presidency country.

In addition, the country's perilous public debt level is also adding pressure. Its debt-to-annual output ratio is the third highest in Europe. The central bank has forecast that it will rise above 100 percent next year.

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