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Coalition talks suspended

Published on 17/08/2007

17 August 2007

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) – Talks to form a new government were suspended Friday after the leader of the Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats told King Albert his bid to craft a centre-right coalition had deadlocked in a dispute over more autonomy for Belgium’s Dutch and French-speakers.

The royal palace said in a statement King Albert will consult political leaders in the days ahead to try to end the impasse. The fact the Belgian monarch is taking an active role in the formation of a government is not unusual in a country where such negotiations are burdened with sensitive linguistic issues.

The palace statement came after Yves Leterme, a Flemish Christian Democratic leader and would-be prime minister, briefed the monarch on the impasse in the one-month old government talks between Christian Democrats and Liberals, each split into French and Dutch-speaking camps .

“During the period of the king’s consultations the (government) negotiations will be suspended,” the palace statement said.

Late Thursday, Francophone negotiators rejected the demand of Dutch-speaking parties for more self-rule in employment, transport, justice and other areas. Their rejection reflects a sense that the more numerous and better-off Dutch-speakers are out to destroy Belgium as a unitary state. Francophone negotiators made counter demands that were unacceptable to Flemish parties such as more Francophone rights in Dutch-speaking Belgium.

“If the French-speakers keep refusing our proposed state reforms, there will be no more Flemish parties around the negotiating table,” added Bart De Wever whose tiny NVA party is an ally of the Flemish Christian Democrats.

Linguistic squabbles are never far from politics in this bilingual country of 10.5 million that became a federal monarchy in the 1980s. Since then, Dutch-speaking Flanders (population 6.5 million) in the north and French-speaking Wallonia (3.5 million) have gradually been given more self-rule in trade, housing, culture, agriculture and other areas.

King Albert asked Leterme to form a new government July 16, five weeks after the centre-left alliance of outgoing Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt lost in national elections. Verhofstadt is staying on in a caretaker capacity.

The negotiations have revealed a spirited push for more self-rule by Flanders, an issue that has long exasperated French-speakers.

Last fall, Belgium’s French-language RTBf television network broadcast a fake newscast of a Flemish declaration of independence. It showed roadblocks, crowds waving the Flemish flag outside the royal palace and video purportedly showing the Belgian royals fleeing the county.

The hoax broadcast was derided in Flanders as a low point in journalism and overstating Flemish demands for more autonomy.

At the heart of the linguistic problem is an issue that is meaningless to outsiders, but that stirs great passion in Belgium: should French speakers in Flemish towns just outside of bilingual Brussels have the right to vote for Francophone politicians.

Leterme has a nasty reputation in Wallonia. In 2006, he riled many there by saying Francophones were “intellectually incapable” of learning Dutch. He also said the only thing French and Dutch-speakers have in common was the king, the national soccer team and a love of beer.

An opinion poll in the daily La Libre Belgique this month found 75 percent of French-speakers find Leterme unacceptable as prime minister. In Flanders, 75 percent think he would make a good Belgian leader.

[Copyright AP 2007]

Subject: Belgian news