Belgium Downplays Breakup Concerns

Other News Materials 8 October 2007 03:12 (UTC +04:00)

( Newsvine ) - Belgium has sent an unusual memo to its embassies around the world: If anyone asks whether the country's Dutch- and French-speaking parts are splitting up, say "No."

Nearly four months after holding general elections, Belgium's squabbling political parties still have not put a government together due to a deadlock over demands for more self-rule in Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia .

The political stalemate has led to media and public speculation that Belgium might be better off breaking up, prompting Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht to offer "useful talking points" to embassy staffs meant to reassure Belgium's political and business partners worldwide.

The key point to make: "Dutch-speaking and Francophone inhabitants have always strived and managed to live together peacefully," the memo says.

It instructs embassy staffs to make clear in conversations with media and others that, after 177 years together, the political ambitions of Dutch- and French-speakers may have "evolved (but) it's still important to them to avoid any kind of violence."

Belgium has 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones . Just about everything - from cable companies to boy scouts to pigeon racing clubs - is split into Dutch- and French-speaking camps.

The country - a federation and constitutional monarchy - also gives a high degree of self-rule to its three regions. The national parliament is elected according to a scheme meant to balance representation of the French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemish.

The June 10 legislative elections gave a total of 81 seats to the Christian Democrats and Liberals, enough to form a governing center-right majority in the 150-seat lower house of parliament.

However both groups are split into Dutch- and French-speaking parties which have failed to agree over Flemish demands for more regional autonomy in health, justice and transport. They are also divided over the rights of a French-speaking minority living in Flemish territory around Brussels - the officially bilingual capital.

Local media reported that Belgian flags were burned during a demonstration Sunday by about 300 Flemish nationalists in Sint-Genesius-Rode , outside the capital. Several hundred people attended a demonstration in favor of Belgian unity in downtown Brussels, RTBF radio reported.

Francophones say enough powers have devolved to Flanders and Wallonia in the last 25 years, and they accuse Flemish politicians of engineering the demise of Belgium as a unified state.

Opinion polls have suggested a growing number of people in Flanders, Belgium's more prosperous northern half, now favor independence.

During a Flemish parliament debate last month on independence, Filip Dewinter , the head of the far-right Flemish Interest Party, said it was time for a "velvet divorce," referring to Czechoslovakia's 1993 peaceful breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Elio di Rupo , leader of the Francophone Socialists, even predicted recently that Flanders will go its own way within a decade. "When you see how many people in Flanders believe Belgium can disappear, it's normal that ... Francophones start thinking about their own future," he said.

But the Belgian situation is not unique, De Gucht said in the memo, noting that Austria and the Netherlands had also experienced difficulties in forming governments, and saying that opinion polls were "fleeting."

So when will there be a government? De Gucht's memo suggests a safe answer: "When the time is right."

On Sunday he told the VRT television network he did not expect one before Nov. 11. Like the rest of Premier Guy Verhofstadt's outgoing Cabinet, De Gucht has stayed on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed.