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Posted on on July 16th, 2008
by Pincas Jawetz (



Belgium heading for new crisis after Leterme resignation
Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme has resigned after failing to reach an agreement over power sharing, Le Monde reports.

The Flemish Leterme was elected after promising greater autonomy for the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, but his reliance on hard-line independence parties in his ruling coalition has forced him to take a tough stance over relations with French-speaking Wallonia.

The paper says that this is the third time Leterme has resigned since winning the elections in June 2007, but that this time he is unlikely to return.

The issue of the bilingual region around Brussels – which continues to encroach on monolingual Flemish regions and has the nationalists incensed – was cited as the key reason for Leterme’s failure.


‘Belgium Is the World’s Most Successful Failed State’

Chaos has returned to Belgium’s capital: The government has collapsed, the prime minister has offered his resignation. German newspapers on Wednesday wonder if the linguistically divided country will ever get its act together.

Getty Images
Belgium and the road to nowhere. The linguistically divided country seems incapable of moving forward.

The Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme threw in the towel late on Monday night, saying he could not force through a consensus between the Flemish and French-speaking coalition partners.

Leterme offered his resignation (more…) to King Albert II, who has so far not formally accepted it. The king is now holding consultations with lawmakers expected to last several days.
In his statement, Leterme, head of the Flemish-speaking Christian Democrats, said the “federal consensus model has reached its limits” — raising the specter of Belgium breaking up for good. The prime minister had a self-imposed July 15 deadline to come up with an agreement on constitutional reform.
The nation’s two main regions — Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, and Francophone Wallonia in the south — have enjoyed increased regional autonomy since the 1970s. The prosperous north now wants more autonomy. It has pushed for reforms that would shift responsibility for taxation and some social security down to the regional level. Francophone parties accuse their Flemish counterparts of trying to separate the north from the poorer south, where unemployment is three times as high.
Matters have been further complicated by a dispute over an electoral district that comprises largely Francophone Brussels and 20 Flemish-speaking towns near the capital.
German papers on Wednesday are concerned about the political crisis at the heart of Europe, but most hold out hope that the Belgians will save their government.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
“There is a great sense of perplexity. No one knows how Belgium should go forward. New elections won’t bring any new power relations and so won’t bring any solution. Before one starts to criticize small Belgium for its political incompetence one should reflect on the fact that if the Flemish want more regional autonomy and the Walloons are fearfully fighting against that, as in all political conflicts, it is a question of the deep desire for self-determination, identity and belonging. Belgium’s search for a new internal balance is not simply about the country’s folklore. It concerns all of Europe.”

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
“The vast majority of the six million Flemish and four million Walloons have nothing against living in the same state, even if it is often a parallel existence. What has pushed the country to the edge of a crisis of state are the provincial-minded politicians and the parties which have become mere lobby groups. Stubborn insistence on proportionality and the splitting of the party system along both political and linguistic lines have caused the art of compromise to slowly shrivel away. That is why there is no easy way out of the crisis. The voters should now speak.”

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
“In terms of economics, Belgium is the most successful ‘failed state’ of all time. Its per capita income is way ahead of Germany, the world’s leading exporter …”
“Belgium can continue to flourish without a national government for the simple reason that the cabinet doesn’t have to decide much anyway. Most authority has devolved to the regions … The central government is left to deal with foreign policy, defense and finance policy — all issues that are increasingly taken care of at the EU level.”
“The Belgian government still controls spending on social welfare. And this is where the conflict has blown up between the two language groups, because rich Flanders wants to pay less for poorer Wallonia.”
“There is still no solution in sight. But part of the Belgian paradox is that there will be some sort of compromise at some stage. Belgium is not lost yet.”

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
“In Belgium the word ‘separation’ is rearing its ugly head again. But things are still not quite that bad. Belgians are masters of muddling through and reaching compromises. Once again King Albert II is playing a key role: He can reject Leterme’s resignation and force the coalition partners to work together for a transitional period. He could also ask someone else to form a government.”
“Snap elections are unlikely: that would require a compromise in the dispute over the bilingual electoral district in Brussels. This is the issue that forced the break-up of the government. It is possible that voters will be asked to elect a new parliament when they go to the polls for European and regional elections next June. Now it’s a question of playing for time. No one in Belgium believes in big solutions that will ease the conflict between the linguistic groups in the long term.”

The conservative Die Welt writes:

“Belgium had always prided itself on being a model for Europe: exemplifying, through the art of compromise and the virtue of tolerance, how nations and cultures can exist peacefully side by side. The country can no longer claim this. The latest political crisis sees the kingdom moving towards the limits of being governable. It is difficult to understand how a people can get so caught up in trifles that they allow the very existence of the country come under threat. On the surface the conflict seems to hinge on a small electoral district in Brussels that was supposed to be split up, ending its bilingual status. “

“In reality, however, the Belgians are arguing about much more. The question is how much solidarity people are prepared to show when times are tough. The rich north no longer wants to help out the south, which has been buffeted by globalization. In the end it’s all about money.”
— Siobhán Dowling,



“Belgium Is the Laboratory for Europe.”
Tuesday 15 July 2008, by: Mathieu Carbasse Interviews Olivier Mouton, Le Nouvel Observateur.

Brussels’ Grand Place, a World Heritage site. Le Soir’s Olivier Mouton talks about Belgium’s political fractiousness: “If there were a scission, what does Brussels become? A city with international status? A city with its own government? Brussels is the capital for both sides; it’s the capital of the country; the capital of Europe.” (Photo: Hideo Kurihara-Stone / Getty Images)

Le Nouvel Observateur: Why don’t Walloons and Flemings reach agreement over institutional reform?

Olivier Mouton: The Flemish parties have wanted to reform the State for a long time in order to obtain greater autonomy for Flanders. Since 1999, they demand the regions take greater responsibility for themselves, especially on a financial level. They also want a reconsideration of the possibility Francophones in the Flemish periphery of Brussels have today to vote for Brussels Francophone candidates in the legislative elections.
On the French-speaking side, the parties have always said the same thing: “After the five big reforms of the 1970s, the federal government suffices to govern the country.”
And on the eve of the June 2007 legislative elections, the Flemings once again ran up against the Francophones’ calm refusal to implement institutional reforms. Hence the failures of successive governments and the impasse in which we find ourselves.
But today, thinking has evolved, especially on the Francophone side. There has been a radicalization of understanding, a maturation that has led the Francophones to say to themselves: “we too could be autonomous.” At present, one feels a real disposition to allow stronger regional autonomy, even going beyond what the majority of Flemings desire.
Is a partition of the kingdom between Francophones and Dutch-speakers imaginable?
Ten years ago, the question was still taboo. In 2008, it’s a question that public opinion revisits. People talk about it, but one must not lose sight of the fact that the country is accustomed to crises, as in the 1930s and 1950s. Then people talked about major misunderstandings within the country itself. However that may be, a partition will not happen in a snap of the fingers.
The Brussels question poses a problem because the city has a legal status and a reality apart. It’s the hyphen between Flemish Belgium and Francophone Belgium. If there were a scission, what does Brussels become? A city with international status? A city with its own government? Brussels is the capital for both sides; it’s the capital of the country; the capital of Europe. This question cannot be settled just like that.
The primary reality today is the global economic crisis that is looming. So we must find a way to streamline the discussion and find a fast way out of the crisis.
Don’t you think the political crisis in Belgium exposes the identity problems that Europe is currently experiencing with respect to economic solidarity and respect for cultural and linguistic specificities?
I know that some do not like this definition, but Belgium is a little bit the laboratory of Europe. There’s an economic and social fracture between a rich region and a poor region, as is the case in Italy and in Spain. It’s also a country where two cultures cohabit, one Latin, one Germanic. The Belgian question reveals the difficulties the European Union is currently confronting in terms of solidarity, notably post enlargement.
Belgium, like Europe, is in a phase of withdrawal in on itself, an economic, social and cultural turning inward. The Flemings feel cornered and retreat behind a linguistic barrier. They are arrogant economically, but very fragile culturally. When that position is taken up by certain populist parties, it backfires.
Olivier Mouton is editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper, Le Soir.
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.

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