ACCA

The Belgian government was left in chaos in April after Belgium’s King Albert II accepted the resignation of the Flemish Christian democrat and Prime Minister, Yves Leterme – Leterme’s third resignation since July 2008. This was the latest installation in the long-term power struggle between the country’s French-speaking Walloons and Flemish-speaking majority.

Leterme’s five-month old coalition government, consisting of five parties from centre left and centre right (Dutch-speaking and Francophone centrists and liberals), collapsed after the centre-right Flemish liberal party (Open VLD) withdrew from the coalition, stating that it had lost confidence in the Government’s ability to settle a dispute over rights for French speakers relating to electoral boundaries in the constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) which allegedly give special rights to Walloons living near Brussels.

These are crucial times for Belgium, which is suffering serious economic as well as political problems. The latest events risk threatening its upcoming stint in the rotating presidency of the EU, to begin on July 1. Indeed the king has commented that a political crisis would harm Belgium’s status in Europe and hinder its economic prospects as it begins to emerge from this crisis. ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) is concerned that, should Belgian experience a deep political crisis, the country – with its over 100% GDP debt- could risk finding itself in a similar position to Greece. At a time when real leadership is needed in the EU, domestic troubles in Belgium could indeed potentially deprive the EU Council of an influential presidency.

The European Commission has reassured both the Belgians and other EU members states by commenting that Belgium’s political crisis and potential early elections will not hinder its presidency of the EU, but it would like to avoid the recurrence of events in the early 2009; the disintegration of the Czech government while in EU presidency role caused havoc in Brussels and forced them to abandon much of the presidency agenda. The creation of a permanent EU president –Mr Van Rompuy, who is coincidentally Belgian himself- will hopefully prevent Belgium’s difficulties to too negatively impact the EU agenda’s priorities this time, but this remains a test case.

Although Leterme tendered his resignation, he has been asked to carry on in a caretaker role until an election can take place, in order to maintain stability. New elections in June, probably on 13, now seem inevitable. This would give Belgium a chance of forming a new government before it takes over the EU presidency and of an appropriate government representative being able to attend the EU summit on June 17 and 18.

However, having a new coalition up and running by the end of June is not a foregone conclusion – it took nine months to form a government after the last general election in 2007.

Even if Belgium does manage to find a resolution and begin to build stability both politically and economically to sustain itself in Europe, this issue will rear its head again. Especially in a country where there has not been a national political party since the 1970s, a longer term solution needs to be considered to bridge the gap between the two main linguistic communities in order to ensure the survival of Belgium as one country.

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