Leading article: Prolonging an uneasy marriage

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The Independent Online

Belgian politicians have found a Belgian solution to a Belgian crisis. Six months after he "lost" a general election, the caretaker Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt is to become an "interim" prime minister at the head of an "interim" coalition government. The longest political crisis in Belgium's crisis-strewn history is over or, at least, suspended until March.

Talk of a Belgian "split" may have been premature. Talk of a solution to the crisis is equally unwise. After three months, Mr Verhofstadt, leader of the Flemish Liberal party, is to give way to Yves Leterme, the head of the Flemish Christian Democrats and the man who "won" the June election. In the meantime, it is hoped, Mr Leterme can succeed where he has lamentably failed in the past six months. As interim, deputy prime minister, he will try to persuade a large majority of politicians from both sides of the Dutch/French language divide to accept yet another reform of the country's jumble of federal and provincial governments.

Nothing suggests that the two sides are ready to agree. Nothing suggests that Mr Leterme who has shown himself brutally insensitive to the concerns of the Francophone 40 per cent of the country is the right man to lead Belgium towards a more trusting relationship between Flemings and Walloons.

The more prosperous Flemish half of the country wants more economic and adminstrative independence from the poorer south. They want to protect their language and culture from what they see as the creeping "Frenchification" of the greater Brussels suburbs.

The French-speakers want to secure the political rights of Francophones living in officially Flemish areas. They also want to prevent the country from being dismantled by stealth.

Opinion polls this week suggest that there is no burning desire, on either side of the language divide, to carve Belgium in two. The problem is, partly, generational. Young and ambitious Belgian politicians now largely define themselves by the needs and fears of their own language communities. Belgium is no longer producing Belgian politicians, but community or regional politicians.

The likable and competent Mr Verhofstadt may prove to be the last of the old Belgian statesmen who attracted trust across the linguistic divide. If so the country's federal future is bleak.

There is no particular point in yoking together peoples who would rather live apart. The uneasy marriage of Flemings and Walloons has not yet reached that stage. Mr Leterme has three months to prove that he is capable of transcending his ambition to be the top dog in Flanders and accept that Flemish interests can best be promoted within the framework of a balanced Belgian state.