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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 March 2008, 14:40 GMT
New Belgian PM faces rocky road
By Dominic Hughes
Europe Reporter, BBC News

Belgium's Flemish Christian Democrat leader Yves Leterme. File photo
Mr Leterme has put together a five-party coalition
A full nine months after elections, a new government has finally taken office in Belgium.

Yves Leterme of the Flemish Christian Democrats is the country's new prime minister, taking over from Guy Verhofstadt who stands down after nine years in office.

But the negotiations leading to the formation of this coalition government have been long and tortuous.

The key sticking point was constitutional reform.

Mr Leterme, a clear winner from the elections in June of last year, had promised his supporters real and significant change.

In Europe's most devolved state, he wants to pass yet more powers from Belgium's federal government to the regions.

Matter of money

But while there is strong backing for this in the Flemish Dutch-speaking north of the country, French-speakers in Wallonia in the south are unimpressed.

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Their region is much poorer, with higher unemployment and a stuttering economy.

Some fear "constitutional reform" is a way of reducing the amount of money the wealthy Flemish transfer to impoverished Wallonia.

For their part, Flemish politicians argue that it is only fair they have a say in how some of that money is spent. Why should they subsidise failed economic policies and high unemployment in Wallonia, they ask.

So after the election came months of stalemate.

Constitutionally - and practically - an administration must include members of both language groups in this linguistically-divided country.

Deeply divided

But once again the gulf that exists between the Dutch and French speakers was exposed.

The two communities seem to exist side-by-side, but with little interaction.

There are no national political parties or newspapers, radio or TV stations.

Even the new prime minister has said it is only the king, a love of beers and the football team that unites Belgians - and the football team has not been that great in recent years.

Mr Leterme has also described Belgium as "an accident of history" with "no intrinsic value", and went on to describe French speakers as "lacking the mental capacity to learn Dutch". He is nothing if not plain speaking.

So in December last year, after more than 190 days of talks, King Albert II stepped in and called a halt.

He asked the defeated Mr Verhofstadt to head an interim administration for three months with authority to pass legislation and to start work on a national budget.

Deal struck

In fact Mr Verhofstadt had been acting as PM anyway while negotiations went on, but with very limited authority.

A bit of breathing space for the parties seemed to do the trick.

At 5am on Tuesday, bleary-eyed journalists heard Mr Leterme announce a deal had been done to stitch together a five-party coalition, including French-speaking socialists and his own centre- right Flemish Christian Democrats.

But the document that the deal is based on fails to address the main stumbling block of constitutional reform.

That has been farmed out to a committee of "wise men" who have to produce proposals by 15 July.

And if the Christian Democrats do not like what they see then, they have already warned they will walk out of the government.

So a fresh political time bomb is ticking under the new administration even as it takes office.



SEE ALSO
New Belgian PM resolves crisis
20 Mar 08 |  Europe
Nation or state?
07 Dec 07 |  Magazine
Viewpoints: Belgian crisis
17 Sep 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Belgium
12 Mar 08 |  Country profiles

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