Belgian political stalemate continues as Flemish parties reject compromise

 

THE TWO largest Dutch-speaking parties in Belgium have rejected new compromise proposals to broker a power-sharing deal with their French-speaking counterparts, prolonging a political saga that has left the country in the control of a caretaker government for 208 days.

After months of fruitless debate, King Albert II was reviewing the situation last night in talks with the mediator he appointed last October to bring together the leaders of the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders and the francophone region of Wallonia.

At issue immediately was whether the mediator, Johan Vande Lanotte, a leading Flemish social democrat, would continue his work or resign. In the event he did resign but the king played for time by refusing to accept that resignation.

“You cannot make a horse drink if it is not thirsty,” Mr Vande Lanotte said of the inability of the parties to find common ground.

French-speaking leaders have backed a return to the negotiating table on the basis of Mr Vande Lanotte’s constitutional reform proposals, which would transfer significant powers to the country’s regional authorities.

They were spurned on the other side of the linguistic divide, even though the proposals were deemed by the French-language press more favourable to prosperous Flanders than to poorer Wallonia. The decentralisation of power is a key demand among Dutch-speakers as this reflects antagonism towards large fiscal transfers to Wallonia.

In a new twist to the drama, Flemish Christian Democrats aligned themselves in opposition to Mr Vande Lanotte’s plan with the hard-line nationalists who unseated them as the dominant political force in Flanders in an election last June.

Christian Democrat leader Wouter Beke declared Mr Vande Lanotte would have to change his plan before negotiations could restart and Bart De Wever, leader of the nationalist New Flemish Alliance, said he had “fundamental remarks” to make about the plan before he could join the talks.

While Mr De Wever has been seen to inflame tensions by calling into question Belgium’s viability and the king’s impartiality, the Christian Democrat rejection of the reform proposal was unexpected and served to underline the extent of the political divisions in the country. It also reflects political tension within Flanders, where voters are perceived to have punished the Christian Democrats for their failure to deliver promised reforms.

The current turmoil has its roots in the appointment of former prime minister Herman Van Rompuy as the first president of the European Council in November 2009. The power-sharing administration led by Mr Van Rompuy’s successor, Yves Leterme, former leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats, lasted only a few months before it collapsed amid an arcane dispute over the allocation of voting rights in Brussels.