Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Is Belgium on the verge of another political crisis?

Just to add to the miserable summer here in Brussels it looks like Belgium's government is on the verge of collapse after only four months in office. Yves Leterme, the Belgian Prime Minister handed in his resignation to the King late last night following his failure to reach a deal on constitutional reforms that would see greater powers devolved to Flanders and Wallonia. Back in March when the new government finally took office, the Prime Minister set himself the deadline of 15 July for reaching agreement on such reforms.

The Flemish political parties want more power over transport, health, jobs and justice as well as greater control over tax and social security. The French-speaking parties think this will lead to Belgium splitting up and are opposed. A recent opinion poll cites 49.7% of the Flemish people who support Flanders becoming an independent state.

There is also a dispute over the redrawing of electoral boundaries around the area of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. Halle-Vilvoorde is largely Flemish but it allows French-speakers in this area to vote for franco-phone candidates outwith this electoral district. The Flemish parties want to end this while the French-speaking parties do not. Usually in Belgium, Dutch speakers must vote for Flemish political parties and French-speakers for Walloon parties hence why the situation in Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde is slightly unique.

Much of the current crisis has been ongoing since Belgium’s elections last June when it took another nine months to form a government and even then it was only on an interim government under the previous Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt until the elected Prime Minister Yves Leterme could get a coalition together.

There was much discussion then as to whether Belgium would finally split such is the cultural and linguistic divide between the 6.5 million Dutch speakers in Flanders (north part of Belgium) and the 4 million French speakers in the south – Wallonia. Brussels exists as a sort of francophone enclave within Flanders. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are no national political parties, no national newspapers or media. For example, Belgium has French Socialists, Flemish Socialists, French Christian Democrats, Flemish Christian Democrats, French Liberals and Flemish Liberals with their own policies. It is also difficult to define what it means to be “Belgian”.

Last time round peoples’ views across Brussels were made clear by the number of flags that were hung out over their balconies and whether they chose to fly the Flemish national flag or the Belgian national flag. I stay in Ixelles, near Place Flagey and the “Des Etangs d’Ixelles” and all around this area was awash with black, gold and red Belgian flags including the house of my landlord who lives next door to me and who told me that they were flying the Belgian national flag out of frustration at the failure of the political parties to form a government as well as loyalty to the King and their national country and did not wish to see Belgium split.

Brussels is a fairly easy city to live in –its bilingual and while I speak mainly French when I’m out and about, increasingly I am having to pull on my year’s Dutch I did many years ago. Certainly if you are in towns like Ghent or Leuven it is better to speak Dutch. Administratively it is chaotic with the three different regions of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital, plus three different language communities – the French community, the Flemish community and the German-speaking community, not to mention the different provinces and communes. Within Brussels the French speaking and Flemish communities have their own areas of competence as regards institutions which depends on the language. But the divide between the Dutch-speakers in Flanders and the French-speakers in Wallonia does seem to be getting wider.

To be honest I’d be amazed if the Belgian King accepts Leterme’s resignation this time given the coalition government is only 4 months old and does not try for the government to reach some kind of compromise deal. But I’d be even more amazed if Belgium hasn’t split within the next 20 years.

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