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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head