Belgian government on hold as crisis talks could last till Thursday

Belgian government on hold as crisis talks could last till Thursday

The future of the Belgian government appeared on hold on Friday, as the Dutch-speaking liberal party that pulled out of the coalition signalled it was prepared to have more talks to avert a crisis, Belgian media reported.

The leader of the Open VLD party, Alexander De Croo, who pulled out of Yves Leterme's government on Thursday, was quoted as saying that an agreement had to be found by May 6, DPA reported.

"If those who have broken our confidence make an effort to restore it, we can re-evaluate the situation," he said according to Belga news agency.

The Open VLD is taking a hard-line on the splitting of the Brussels-Hal-Vilvoorde (BHV) electoral district, the latest issue dividing the French-and Dutch-speaking communities that make up the country.

Flemish (Dutch-speaking) parties want Dutch-speaking Hal and Vilvoorde to be separated from bilingual Brussels, and are backed by a 2003 ruling of Belgium's constitutional court.

However, for the reform to be enacted, special compensations have to be guaranteed for the French speakers living in the two communes, who stand to lose the right to use French in dealings with public authorities.

The five-member coalition supporting Leterme, made up of three French- and two Dutch-speaking parties, was formed five months ago on the understanding that a decision on BHV would have been taken by Easter.

But even non-partisan compromise proposals drawn up by former Belgian prime minister Wilfried Martens could not solve the conundrum, with Francophone parties unhappy with guarantees given to their minority.

All government parties but the Open VLD wanted to continue talks, while the Flemish liberals insisted parliament had to vote on BHV on Thursday, which could have led to decision being taken on ethnic lines.

Dutch-speaking parties, who make up about 60 per cent of the assembly, could push the measure through. But that would be seen as an unprecedented rupture in Belgium's consensual-style politics, and a provocation that could hasten the country's split.

Hours before parliamentary leaders decided to put off the vote, Leterme handed in his resignation to King Albert II.

The monarch, who was still holding consultations on Friday, could either ask Leterme to soldier on, appoint a "mediateur" to see if an alternative government could be mustered up, or call fresh elections.

The political chaos could cast a shadow over Belgium's upcoming presidency of the EU, set to start on July 1 for a six-month term, as the country risks assuming the helm of the 27-nation bloc with only a caretaker government in place.

Meanwhile, local media was asking itself on Friday whether the latest conflict between politicians from poorer, French-speaking Wallonia and counterparts from richer, Dutch-speaking Flanders, meant that Belgium was heading for secession.

"Is there still a point to this country?" ran the headline from the largest Francophone paper, Le Soir.

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