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Belgium Remains Without New Government


More than three months after general elections, Belgium remains without a new government. Political parties are wrangling over proposals to hand over greater power to regions and local communities in French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders. From Brussels, Lisa Bryant reports the crisis is also sparking calls for dividing in two a country of 10.5 million people that is at the heart of the European Union.

In some ways, Belgium is already divided. To the north lies Flanders, where Dutch is spoken. To the south lies Wallonia, where people speak French. There is also a small German-speaking community. The country's French and Flemish speakers have their own governments, media, schools and sports teams. There is little intermarriage and, increasingly, young people are learning English as their second language - rather than each other's dialects.

Calls for a formal split are growing louder - mostly in Flanders. The idea is championed by the far-right Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Block party, whose popularity has surged in recent years.

During an interview at the Flemish parliament in Brussels, Vlams Belang leader Filip Dewinter says there is nothing holding the two regions together.

"I don't think the Flemish people and the Walloon people have anything in common," said Dewinter. "Well, maybe the king, the beer and chocolates. But for the rest, we have a different type of economy. We don't speak the same languages. We even have different types of political majorities. And, we have a different way of life - our cultural identity is completely different.

Many Dutch speakers appear to agree. A poll, published earlier this month, found nearly half of all Flems want an independent Flemish state. Many of their reasons are economic. Wealthy Flanders, whose citizens account for 60 percent of the population, has been helping out poorer Wallonia for years.

But advocates of a united Belgium argue the country's citizens share more than just beer and chocolates. They have a common foreign and fiscal policy. Their country has given birth to international stars like French-speaking singer Jacques Brel - who came from a Flemish family.

And, then, there is French-speaking Brussels, which lies inside Flanders and is the seat of the European Union. Antonio Missiroli, head of the European Policy Center in Brussels, says talk of a divided Belgium is good news and bad news for the EU.

"The good news is that precisely the success of European integration makes it possible to have a country which is a member that splits up. A sort of velvet divorce within the union without a major shock for the rest of the union," said Missiroli.

Missiroli says the bad news is that a divided Belgium may fuel autonomous sentiments elsewhere - among the Basques in Spain, for example, or the Corsicans in France.

Belgium's crisis has its comic side. Last week, one frustrated citizen posted his country for sale on the Internet. And, last year, Belgium television aired a fake newscast about the country splitting, which sparked turmoil.

In places like the Brussels suburb, Rhode-Saint-Genese - or Sint-Ginesisu-Rode in Flemish - Belgians like 78-year-old Rogers Tande, a Flem, are of two minds about a possible split.

"If the country divides in two, French and Dutch speakers can pursue their own political programs - and that is good," Tande said. "On the other hand, the two peoples are stronger together.

Most Walloons want the country to stay together. Olivier Maingain, head of the leftist Francophone Democratic Front Party, doubts it will split.

Still, Maigain says Francophones must be prepared for a possible future without Flanders. If that happens, he says Walloons will keep what is left of Belgium - including Brussels, as a sort of international capital.

But analysts say it is inconceivable the Flemish will ever part with Brussels. They say that may be one reason why Belgium will stay intact.

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