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Talk of Belgian Split Grows Louder as Coalition Talks Collapse

  • Teri Schultz

Belgium has been called an "artificial country", a conglomeration of three individual states that have no real affinity for each other: Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and a small German-speaking community. The Dutch and French speakers have their own parliaments, media and schools and rarely intersect. Now there is one thing all have in common: no federal government. The increasing animosity has added fuel to long-simmering talk of splitting the country apart. Teri Schultz reports for VOA from Brussels.

Belgium is feeling increasingly uncomfortable, even for a country that has weathered tension between two main French and Dutch communities dating back to the country's creation 177 years ago.

Since parliamentary elections in June, the prospective new prime minister Yves Leterme, head of the Christian-Democratic alliance in Flanders, has been trying in vain to forge a governing coalition with the Liberal party that won in Wallonia.

Political analyst Caroline Segasser says Belgium is looking bad on the world stage. "Five months after elections we are absolutely nowhere near forming a government. and it's starting to look like foreign investors are thinking twice before investing their money in Belgium," he said.

Huge obstacles remain and neither side is budging. Flemish parties insist that regional governments must have more autonomy. With 60 percent of the population, Flanders generates 70 percent of Belgium's Gross Domestic Product. The Dutch speaking area wants to retain more power and tax money, rather than sending it south.

Wallonia's politicians are resisting this, partly because they see it as the first step toward dividing the country, which Walloons oppose in large numbers. "It's very difficult for Walloons and Flamands and for the middle, Brussels," he said.

That is the lament of Viviane Neys, a French-speaking inhabitant of the "middle", the Brussels electoral district, the focus of another major disagreement and the cause of the latest collapse of coalition talks.

When Belgium created the formal administrative areas of Flanders and Wallonia in 1977, it made Brussels a separate area, situated inside Flanders but officially bilingual. Most of Brussels is Francophone, and inhabitants may conduct official business in either Dutch or French and elect members of parliament from either language group.

Flemings have long opposed this because parts of Brussels are predominantly Dutch-speaking.

The issue came to a head on Wednesday, when Flemish parliamentarians in the talks forced a vote on carving up the Brussels district. The plan would deprive more than 120-thousand French-speakers of the language rights they currently enjoy.

French-speaking politicians walked out of the talks.

While the unilateral vote has no legal consequences, political analyst Caroline Segasser says the symbolism has dealt a blow to the already-fragile process. "It's a turning point in the general climate, definitely. As for forming the government, I would say it's a setback I wouldn't say to square one but very near there," she said.

The vote has heightened the Francophones' feeling that they are being discriminated against and their insistence on the country's unity.

"We don't want the separation of Belgium - it's not possible!," said Viviane Neys.

But Flemish separatists say it is not only possible, it would be better for them.

Flemish extremists argue that the more productive Flanders region sends more money to the government than it receives back. They say each Fleming subsidizes Wallonia to the tune of 18-hundred euros a year. They claim that Flanders is able to stand alone economically.

The concept is not unpleasant to many Flemings. Hilde Grauwels, who lives in an an affluent bilingual Brussels suburb, says she is not for separation, but she is not against it either. "Some people say Belgium is too small to divide. But there are even smaller countries with less people in Europe and all over the world so why wouldn't it work?," she said.

Few Walloons seem to feel that Wallonia, where unemployment is above 15 percent, could stand alone.

While polls show that most Belgians do not want a break-up, the number who think it will happen is climbing.

With talk of a split growing, neighboring countries are weighing in on the issue.

Fellow European Union members like Spain and France fear a Belgian break-up would bolster linguistic or ethnic minorities seeking autonomy within their borders. In addition, the European Union and NATO, both headquartered in Brussels, do not want to be sitting in the middle of disputed territory or in charge of it.

"There are people who think that would be an ideal situation for Brussels if Brussels was to become a kind of 'Washington, DC' under the direct management of the [European] Commission. But the Commission has never, ever, shown any sign that they were willing to accept that," said Caroline Segasser.

Belgium's king has asked Yves Leterme to continue trying to form a coalition. Leterme says he hopes to bring the parties back to the table next week.

In the meantime, the Belgian Foreign Ministry, run by a caretaker foreign minister, has reportedly instructed its embassies to reassure political and business partners abroad that Belgium is not breaking up and that a government will be formed "when the time is right."