Baudouin strives to avert chaos: Regional splits and budget row bring Belgium to breaking point

KING BAUDOUIN spent yesterday trying to avert the chaos that has been building for four months and threatens to destroy Belgium's economic security and international reputation as a model European state.

The King has been characterised, along with the national debt, as the only thing holding Belgium together. He is all that stands between conflict and consensus in a nation strained to breaking-point by regional differences exacerbated by a weakening economy.

On Tuesday night, after three days' argument over budget cuts, the Prime Minister, Jean- Luc Dehaene, called his government's bluff and tendered his resignation to the King, who is considering whether or not to accept it.

The row is over 35bn Belgian francs ( pounds 700m). The government's four coalition partners are committed to reducing the budget deficit - 6.9 per cent of gross national product (GNP) - to 3 per cent of GNP by 1996. That is a requirement for European monetary union, which Belgium fervently supports. All are pledged to shave Bf110bn from this year's budget and are agreed on cuts of Bf75bn.

Mr Dehaene's Flemish Christian Democrats suggested the remainder be found by limiting index-linked salary increases and using the money to help fund the social security system. To the French-speaking Socialists, the index-linking of salaries is an unbreakable tenet of faith.

The budget battle is the latest manifestation of a deeper political fight between the French- speaking Walloons and the Flemings, who live in the northern half of the country. Wallonia, home of Belgium's heavy industry, has been declining for some two decades, its prime businesses sold to France, and it smarts at seeing Flanders, viewed as a region of shopkeepers, now dominating the economy and the government.

The Socialists, who are the dominant party in Wallonia, believe that the only way of saving money and preserving Belgium's comprehensive welfare system is to raise taxes. The Christian Democrats, the dominant Flemish party, complain that this would perpetuate the system whereby rich Flanders is taxed to pay for bankrupt Wallonia.

Since becoming Prime Minister in March last year, Mr Dehaene has struggled to reconcile the two sides by introducing institutional reforms making Belgium a federal state and granting more autonomy to the country's Flemish, French and tiny German speaking-communities. Belgium, which likes to think of itself as the model European, suggests that its peaceful transition to federalism offers a blueprint for other nations struggling to contain nationalist sentiments.

Outsiders may write scare headlines about a Czechoslovak- type schism or the Balkanisation of Belgium, but Xavier Mabille, a leading political commentator, dismisses such analyses as media hype or chauvinism: 'No one has ever died in the cause of Belgian federalism,' he says.

The transition may be bloodless but it is certainly painful. The complexities of engineering a peaceful division of power have alienated the electorate, which registered its dissatisfaction in November 1991 by voting, especially in Flanders, for the extreme right, which campaigned on a separatist platform. To win back voters, the mainstream parties have been forced to talk in more nationalist terms: the leader of the Flemish community has gone on the record suggesting that the institutional reforms under way are a first step towards the creation of a Flemish state.

The King will have all this in mind as he considers his decision. He could accept the government's resignation but insist it first sees through the institutional reforms, due for completion by July.

He could refuse, forcing the government to negotiate its way out of the impasse. Or he could appoint an independent arbiter to try to fashion a new coalition. Another course would be to dissolve parliament, forcing fresh elections.

This last option would surely produce fresh gains for the extreme right and as inconclusive a result as the last election, after which it took more than 100 days to form a government.

Worse still, an election could not be organised much before July. Belgium, the model European state, would thus face the ignominy of taking over the EC presidency in the second half of next year without a government.

The starkness of the choice may persuade the ruling coalition parties to rethink their positions, humbled perhaps by a recent opinion poll indicating that one in two Belgians believes the government is not devoting enough attention to reducing the budget deficit and that nine out of 10 think the real issues of the day have little to do with regionalism, federalism or separatism, but concern the creation of jobs, rising crime and political corruption.

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
Review: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Arts & Entertainment
Charlotte Brontë, the English novelist, poet and the eldest of the three Bronte sisters who lived into adulthood, has been celebrated with a Google Doodle depicting her most famous novel, Jane Eyre.
arts + ents "Reader, they doodled her".

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Sport
Tour de France 2014Sir Rodney Walker on organising the UK stages of this year’s race
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan in ‘Jamaica Inn’
TVJessica Brown Findlay on playing the spirited heroine of Jamaica Inn
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
News
People
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players