Crisis takes its toll on King of the Belgians

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The Independent Online

The strain of trying to hold Belgium together has taken a toll on the health of the country's monarch. King Albert II has been ordered by his doctors to cut back on his engagements immediately and to take a complete rest once the country's three-month-old political and constitutional crisis has been resolved.

Since parliamentary elections on 10 June, the king, 73, has been at the heart of a series of fruitless efforts to find a government acceptable to the country's fractious Dutch and French-speaking communities. As a result, he has not been able to convalesce properly after breaking his femur when falling down steps at the royal palace at Laeken soon after the poll.

Under the Belgian constitution, the king has powers and responsibilities for guaranteeing the unity of the country. He is also partially responsible for the continuity of government when a caretaker administration in power.

In the past three months, while recovering from an operation on his leg, King Albert has had to grapple with one of the most serious political crises in the history of the linguistically and culturally divided country. He has also been faced with allegations of secret stock-piling of wealth by the royal family, which the palace has angrily denied.

The king underwent a quadruple heart by-pass operation seven years ago but the palace said yesterday that there was nothing wrong with his "general health". He should have rested for three months after the operation, the palace said. He has been unable to do so and has now been ordered by his doctors to cancel all meetings not essential to the search for a new government.

Despite appointing four different political go-betweens in the past three and a half months – a "mediator", an "investigator", a "potential prime minister" and an "explorer" – King Albert seems to be no closer to solving the political crisis. There has been renewed speculation both in Belgium and abroad about a possible division of the 177-year-old country into Dutch and French-speaking statelets.

Most senior politicians, on both sides of the linguistic divide, believe that crisis will be resolved without a split. There are signs, however, that the uncertainty is already damaging the country's economy by scaring off foreign investors.

More than 1,000 people marched through Brussels at the weekend carrying banners and wearing badges withe words "Don't Touch My Belgium". A new opinion poll showed a sharp fall – from 46 per cent down to 39 per cent – in the proportion of Dutch-speakers who would welcome an independent Flanders.

The crisis resulted from the sweeping success in the June elections of the Flemish Christian Democratic party, led by Yves Leterme. Although himself the son of a Francophone father and a Flemish mother, Mr Leterme is a militant campaigner for increased autonomy for the Dutch-speaking north of the country. He has demanded further cession of the already limited powers of the Belgian federal state to a jumble of five regional and linguistic parliaments and administrations.

In return, French-speaking political parties have demanded the re-opening of contentious negotiations on the new "linguistic" boundaries to allow majority Francophone suburbs of Brussels to leave the Dutch-speaking north of the country.

According to tradition, Mr Leterme, as the most popular politician in the majority Dutch-speaking community, should have become prime minister. He has, however, infuriated the French-speaking part of the country by saying, among other things, that there was nothing left of Belgium but "the royal family, the national football team and a few beers". He also asked why it seemed to be "beyond the intellectual capacity" of French-speakers to learn the country's majority language.

Mr Leterme's attempts to form a government in Brussels with French-speaking parties failed. Ninety per cent of French-speaking Belgians now say that they cannot accept him as their leader.

Options that remain open to the king are slender. One possibility might be to call a new parliamentary election and hope that another Dutch-speaking leader emerges who might be more acceptable to the French-speaking south.