Breakthrough in Belgian political crisis
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After 459 days without a government, Belgium’s political factions appear to have made a breakthrough in talks late Wednesday, amid warnings from ratings agencies the country could face a downgrade if it slips deeper into crisis.
AFP - The politician tasked with negotiating with Belgium's main political parties to resolve the country's long-running political crisis announced a breakthrough in talks late Wednesday.
The eight parties locked in the talks had made a "first decisive step" towards a way out of the crisis that has left the country without a government for well over a year, socialist leader Elio Di Rupo said.
"The eight parties have together succeeded in overcoming the obstacles which have created difficulties these last few days," Di Rupo said in a statement issued after a day of tense negotiations.
Eurozone member Belgium, without a government for 459 days as its French- and Dutch-speaking components squabble, is under notice from ratings agencies of a possible downgrade should it slip deeper into crisis.
The country's political problems intensified late Tuesday when caretaker premier Yves Leterme announced he would step down to run for a senior job at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In response, King Albert II, who has played a lead role in 15 months of efforts to strike a deal between Belgium's two feuding language communities, cut short his vacation in southern France and headed home.
The king had appointed Di Rupo, leader of the country's second major party, the French-speaking Socialists, to negotiate a consensus deal as a platform for a governing coalition.
Hours after Leterme said he was quitting, Di Rupo warned in a pre-dawn statement Wednesday that his four-month drive to find a government for Belgium looked to be heading for breakdown.
But after reporting later that the talks were in "deep blockage" following more than 15 hours of talks, he was finally able to announce a breakthrough.
Among other issues, the parties had managed to settle their differences over Bruxelles-Hal-Vilvorde, or BHV, a district covering the capital and the suburbs, said the statement from Di Rupo.
BHV is the only district in Belgium that is officially bilingual rather than French- or Dutch-speaking.
"Even if the work is far from being finished and numerous debates have to be worked out, the steps taken today ... constitute an important step," said the statement.
The country was left in the hands of a caretaker cabinet after June 10, 2010 elections failed to produce a workable governing coalition.
Divisions between northern Dutch-speaking separatists and southern French-speakers proved insurmountable.
The long impasse has underlined the widening gulf between the wealthier 6.2 million people of Flanders and the 4.5 million French-speakers of struggling Wallonia.
Di Rupo has been trying to draft an agreement to devolve more powers to the country's three language regions -- Dutch, French and German.
Eight parties are involved in the talks but not the largest party in Flanders, the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).
Albert II warned in July that the continuing deadlock, which has seen Belgium have the dubious record of being the world's longest country without a government, threatened both its economic future and Europe as a whole.
"If this situation lasts much longer, it could negatively and concretely affect the economic and social well-being of every Belgian," said the sovereign, who ascended to the throne in 1993.
"Our current situation is a cause for concern among our partners and could damage our position in Europe, and even the momentum towards European integration which has already been undermined by populism and euroscepticism," he said.
A founding member of the European Union, Belgium was long considered an example of integration in Europe. It plays host to pre-eminent global organisations such as NATO and the EU.