Who needs government? Miss Belgium asks
As the country marks a year of political mess Monday, a whole 12 months without an official government, even Miss Belgium is joining exasperated calls to politicians to break the impasse.
"Belgium is beautiful! We have so much, the sea in Flanders, the forest in Wallonia," said 19-year-old beauty queen Justine de Jonckheere. "But I must admit the country has problems.
"Ministers hold endless meetings to reach an understanding, but never do," she told the daily Le Soir. "They need to put a little water in their wine!"
The country of 11 million people that hosts global powerhouses, the EU and NATO, on Monday becomes the first nation in recent history to remain without a government for an entire year -- a feat due to a festering language divide splitting the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south.
While a caretaker government that lost last year's June 13 elections has reduced the deficit and even sent warplanes to join the NATO-led campaign in Libya, the impasse is feeding fears of a looming carve-up of the country.
An opinion survey Friday showed two-thirds of Belgians continue to believe the country can survive its fiercest crisis to date -- though the proportion was highest in French-speaking Wallonia, at 79 percent, followed by 74 percent in bilingual Brussels and 62 percent in Dutch-speaking Flanders.
But as feuding politicians repeatedly fail to bridge the divide by forming a workable coalition, the flak in Belgium's language battle continues to fly.
Linguistic tension marred the much-hyped crowning of northerner de Jonckheere as Miss Belgium earlier this year, amid shrill allegations of Flemish favouritism from French-speaking contestants -- and despite the fact she speaks both languages.
The Brussels transport minister a few weeks back ordered songs in both Dutch and French to be aired again on the city subway system after it transpired that rail authorities were broadcasting solely in English, Italian or Spanish to avoid recrimination from the different communities.
And last month a fierce linguistic row spattered the political arena when Dutch separatists complained of the poor Dutch or little Dutch spoken by French-language politicians.
"Even today, negotiations to form a government take place in French. That, after all, is not normal," said Belgian Flemish leader Bart De Wever.
De Wever's separatist N-VA party led the June 2010 polls in Flanders, while French-speaking Socialists headed by Elio Di Rupo led the field in Wallonia.
But with no outright majority, efforts to bridge both the language divide and the wide political chasm between Di Rupo's leftwingers and De Wever's liberal-leaning separatists have floundered time after time.
Representing the wealthier 6.2 million Dutch speakers, the N-VA refuses to foot the bill for the 4.5 million francophones living in the rust belt of Wallonia.
Also at issue between the two communities is the fate of the capital Brussels, enclaved in Flanders, a largely French-speaking city of one million people with road signs in both languages.
"Brussels is a little like Belgium's child," De Wever told AFP.
"It's up to both communities to find a way of managing Brussels in a satisfactory fashion so that we all reap the fruits of Brussels but also pay its expenses."
De Wever played down fears of a deepening crisis, saying it was not the first in a country whose efforts in grappling with its different communities have long made it a case-study in compromise for political scientists.
"I can only hope that after the many difficulties we have faced, that we can get to a new stage and find a consensus, which would be a confederal system."
At issue in heated talks during almost 12 months has been a deadlock over Flemish demands for greater autonomy, notably in fiscal and social policy.
Belgium's already largely devolved system, where the central government runs defence, diplomacy, finance, justice and social security, has enabled the caretaker government to lurch more easily than would a more highly centralised system.
"We face a complex situation," Di Rupo told AFP.
"There are different political goals, and this is a country of coalition, not a country of bipartisan politics and parliamentary majorities. This is a country where we speak three languages, so it's a complex multicultural, multilingual laboratory.
"To resolve our problems this time, we will need a little further time."
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