Belgium is edging closer to the political abyss in the wake of another round of failed talks aimed at holding the deeply divided country together. Francophone politicians like Laurette Onkelinx (pictured) warn of a future separated from the Flemish.
It is hard to imagine more alarming rhetoric for supporters of a unified Belgium. Throughout the weekend, the Belgian media was dominated by one dramatic statement after another from francophone politicians who now openly discuss the prospect of dividing the country in two. "We must start preparing for the end of Belgium,” warned senior Socialist leader Laurette Onkelinx in an interview with La Derniere Heure newspaper. That sentiment was echoed by Rudy Demotte, the leader of the French-speaking Wallonia region, who said that the time had come to consider “all options.”
This grim prognosis from French-speaking officials comes in reaction to Friday’s resignation by socialist francophone leader Elio Di Rupo as Wallonia’s lead negotiator with Dutch-speaking Flemish rivals to form a coalition government. Belgium has been in a political limbo ever since inconclusive June elections. Three months on, the country still does not have a government – functioning only with an interim prime minister, Yves Leterme. All the while, the feud among the Dutch-speaking Flemish parties and their French-speaking rivals deepens.
Among the central issue in this debate is the level of autonomy for regional governments. The Flemish north is seeking more regional authority from the central government, but the financially-weaker Walloons worry that such a move would harm their interests as they are net beneficiaries of federally-funded programmes.
King Albert II is moving quickly to get coalition talks back on track. He wasted little time after Di Rupo’s departure to appoint a pair of new negotiators in the hope of finally reaching a consensus to form a government. Joëlle Milquet, president of the francophone Wallonia-based political party “Humanist Democratic Centre” welcomed the King’s swift action. "This is a positive sign for the dialogue and, hopefully, [it will provide] the necessary confidence to find a lasting solution for the country,” she said.
It's not just political
Investors and international credit rating agencies are also watching this dispute very carefully. With the third highest debt-to-GDP ratio in Europe, drafting sound budgets with an eye towards deficit reduction becomes critical. The lack of a government and the mounting political uncertainty could have real economic consequences. “I’m afraid the political parties are playing with fire,” Philippe Ledent, an economist at ING Brussels told Reuters. “The financial markets may start discussing the probability, low as it is at the moment, that the country will split.”
This dispute touches on so many sensitive Belgian issues across multiple levels from wealth distribution to culture to the always touchy issue of language. It has also become a very emotional topic according to some observers. Veteran Belgium correspondent for the Paris-based newspaper “Liberation,” Jean Qautremer, summed it up this way in a recent blog entry: “the French (in Belgium) are behaving like a scorned spouse who tries in vain to recapture a former lover who has already moved on.” Whether relations between Walloons and Flemish leaders are indeed beyond repair remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the once unthinkable suggestion of a divorce is now an option.