Belgian PM hurt in crash as flights row divides country

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The Independent Online

The Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, was recovering yesterday after a road accident in which his car hit a concrete pillar and rolled over three times.

The Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, was recovering yesterday after a road accident in which his car hit a concrete pillar and rolled over three times.

The accident happened as the Prime Minister returned to his home city of Ghent after two days of negotiations aimed at finding a solution to a bitter political row over an extension of night flights by the international courier company DHL at Zaventem airport in Brussels. The row is threatening the future survival of the Belgian government.

DHL wants to increase night flights over Brussels by up to 3000 a year and has threatened to pull the plug on its Brussels European hub and move elsewhere if it is prevented from expanding. But aircraft noise is sensitive issue and two regional governments - Brussels and Flanders - object to increasing night flights over the capital and, potentially, over other towns around the airport at Zaventem, just outside the capital.

Mr Verhofstadt, who suffered two broken ribs, was taken to hospital after the crash on Tuesday and kept in overnight. The chauffeur of his Audi A8 suffered cuts and bruises.

The night-flights dispute has assumed enormous importance for Mr Verhofstadt and the fate of his fractious, governing liberal-socialist coalition hinges on the outcome. Thousands of jobs are at stake but some residents object to the prospect of the increased aircraft noise that is certain to follow. The issue has polarised Belgium's sectarian politics, pitting Flemish politicians against Francophone rivals.

Mr Verhofstadt, who backs a deal to keep DHL at Zaventem, had given the regional authorities until late last night to accept a compromise. The company's plan to expand its services at Zaventem airport would create thousands of new jobs and help the government meet an election pledge of creating 200,000 jobs.

But it has met opposition from regional governments and local residents, with 70 families living near the airport launching a court case to get DHL to cut the number of night flights. If its expansion is blocked, DHL has threatened to shut its Belgian operation and relocate its European hub to Leipzig in Germany or Vatry in France. That could cost Belgium at least 1,800 jobs.

The company provides direct and indirect employment for about 5,800 people and is the biggest employer at Zaventem.

Before his accident, Mr Verhofstadt campaigned hard to win over the public, arguing: "There is a lot at stake here. We are talking about thousands and thousands of jobs. We can't fiddle around with this."

Flemish politicians, who represent those most likely to gain from the new jobs, have blamed well-to-do Francophone residents of Brussels for obstructing the plan. Critics say an increase in noise would lead to hundreds of deaths through depression and heart disease, and increase the national health care bill by €250m (£170m) a year. The Deputy Prime Minister, Patrick Dewael, urged both sides to decide quickly. "Time is running out," Mr Dewael said. "We have a good compromise on the table."

The row could deal a fatal blow to the political fortunes of 51-year-old Mr Verhofstadt, who was nicknamed "Baby Thatcher" in his political youth. He came to power in 1999 when the Christian Democrat government led by Jean-Luc Dehaene was drummed out of office by voters in a backlash over the Marc Dutroux scandal and a crisis over food contamination.

Since then Flemish and Francophone Greens have abandoned Mr Verhofstadt's original six-party coalition, and the Prime Minister's personal popularity has waned. He was rebuffed by the voters in June's European elections.