Belgian talks collapse

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Dutch- and French-speaking politicians blamed each other yesterday for the collapse of six months of government coalition talks that have revealed how differently Belgium's linguistic camps view their future together.

The talks between Christian Democrats and Liberals each split into Dutch- and French-speaking camps ran aground on the issue of granting more autonomy to prosperous, Dutch-speaking Flanders and poorer, less populous Wallonia, the Francophone region.

Yves Leterme, a Dutch-speaking Christian Democrat, abandoned his mandate to form a government on Saturday and King Albert began consulting political leaders on a way out of the crisis.

Finding another government is difficult. In the June 10 general elections, Christian Democrats and Liberals together won 81 of the 150 legislative seats. No other two-party alliance can claim such a majority.

"This is a very serious crisis," said Bart Somers, leader of the Dutch-speaking Liberals. "In international organizations, Belgium is a laughing stock. This country needs a stable government and a new model of cohabitation" for its Dutch- and French-speakers, he said.

The deadlock is rooted in demands in Flanders for more self-rule, notably over tax and social security issues.

Francophones reject that, saying the constitution has been amended five times since 1970 and that shifting any more federal powers to the regions will be the end of Belgium.

Making social security and taxation regional responsibilities is seen in Wallonia as eroding the notion that in any country the rich pay more to support the poor.

Joelle Milquet, head of the Francophone Christian Democrats the party whose refusal to accept more self-rule measures led to the collapse of Leterme's efforts to form a government said the Flemish parties made "unacceptable, unbalanced demands."

She said corporate taxes and social security "in the end affect the daily lives of all Belgians" and should therefore remain federal responsibilities.

More regional autonomy is a key issue for the Flemish Christian Democrats, Belgium's largest party, and their more radical sister party, the New Flemish Alliance. Both blame poor governance in Wallonia for the region's persistent double-digit unemployment rate.

Flemish Christian Democrat leader Jo van Deurzen said the collapse of the government talks opened the way "for the search for a new consensus about the future of this country."

There is no deadline for concluding government talks. Until a new government can take office, the outgoing centre-left government has stayed on in a caretaker capacity.