Dominant force in Belgian politics for more than a decade

Wilfried Martens: April 19th, 1936 – October 9th, 2013

Former Belgian prime minister Wilfried Martens, who has died aged 77, was a dominant force in Belgian politics and headed nine administrations between 1979 and 1991, becoming the longest-serving Belgian prime minister since the second World War.

Though politically a conservative, he and his contemporary Margaret Thatcher were hardly ideological soulmates. He incurred her lasting resentment and a slighting reference to "a certain Mr Martens" in her autobiography after a junior functionary, briefly in charge at a ministry one weekend, refused to sell ammunition to Britain during the Falklands war.

For his part, Martens expressed himself shocked in his autobiography at her response when, at a summit, he told her how much he enjoyed listening to the BBC’s weekend classical music concerts.

“She wondered how a prime minister could find the time for such distractions and anyway did not know that the BBC had this type of music in its programmes. I replied that a man, whatever his work, must be able to be detached.”


Martens faced problems Thatcher never had, in keeping Belgium’s fissiparous coalitions – not only left and right but Flemish and Walloon – together. After his fall from government in 1992, he pursued a wily career at the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, leading the centre-right grouping for five years, from 1994 to 1999.

Martens regarded his identification with the bourgeois Belgian man in the street – comfortable, complacent, anxious to compromise – as crucial to his political success, writing: "You can't be prime minister in Belgium, you can't be a political star unless you have in you the profile of the population.

“I have been reading that I am not a charismatic leader – that’s true, I think. But I also think I have the profile of the Belgians. It’s a working population. A form of modesty is important . . . You can’t say, ‘I’ll try to think like a Belgian.’ You have it or you haven’t.”

Ghent power base
Martens was born on the family farm near Ghent in Flanders and grew up during the German occupation in some poverty following the early death of his father. Ghent remained his power base and he made political capital of returning there each evening rather than staying in the prime ministerial residence in the capital.

His ability was spotted by the village priest and a local teacher, who encouraged him to attend university. He trained as a lawyer and, fired with Flemish nationalism, joined the regional Christian Democratic party, rising rapidly through the ranks.

He was catapulted into the premiership in April 1979 after only five years in parliament and without holding any previous ministerial office, as the result of an eight-month political crisis following the resignation of his one-time mentor and later rival Leo Tindemans.

The crisis was the result of fundamental divisions between the coalition government’s Socialist and Christian Democrat parties over how to tackle economic problems, a burgeoning welfare deficit and the long-term decline of Belgium’s traditional heavy industries.

This, together with growing tensions over the country’s regional and linguistic divide between Flemish and French speakers, formed long-running threads in his premiership and resulted in the sequence of shifting coalition allegiances over which Martens presided, as he came to be seen as the indispensable leader, the only man capable of holding factional governments together.

Language tensions
Martens maintained that he managed to bring the economic crisis and high unemployment levels under control without resorting to Thatcherite deflation. The language tensions were more intractable.

On one occasion a government crisis was precipitated by the refusal of the francophone mayor of a largely French-speaking village in Flanders to take an examination to prove to the authorities that he could conduct meetings, as required by law, in Flemish. The mayor could, but with true Belgian obduracy refused to do so, bringing down the national government.

Although the country eventually moved towards a federal constitutional settlement in 1993, giving each language group its own parliament, by the time Martens left office the far-right, separatist Flemish party Vlaams Blok (later disbanded and then reconstituted as Vlaams Belang) was already making electoral headway in the north of the country.

Belgian society suffered several blows during his premiership. The Heysel stadium disaster in 1985 brought down one of his governments. There were also a series of criminal crises, which the police failed to resolve.

Martens was not personally responsible, but could plausibly be seen as the central figure in a too cosy and complacent establishment which allowed such an atmosphere to flourish, a man lacking political vision but good at private deal-making in smoke-filled rooms.

He was married three times, first to Lieve Vershroeven, then to Ilse Schouteden, and then in 2008 to Miet Smet, a former Belgian minister, who survives him, along with five children.