Belgium ship of state to get a captain, but seas may be rough. Economic accord helped pave way for new government
After 143 days without a government, Belgium's five political parties have approved an agreement for a center-left coalition. And by next week, a coalition government should be installed, with outgoing Prime Minister Wilfried Martens as its leader. It will be Belgium's 35th government since the end of World War II. Political analysts here hope the agreement will put to rest the divisive language issue which has dogged previous governments and which brought down the last administration.
Today, the five political parties - the Christian Democrats and Socialists of Belgium's French and Flemish-speaking regions, and the Flemish Nationalist Volksunie Party - are expected to endorse the agreement reached Monday by their party leaders.
This will bring an end to the months of negotiations which have taken place since the former center-right coalition government was defeated last December. The elections were called because the government had collapsed Oct. 19 over a language row.
Belgium's wealthier, northern region is Flemish-speaking and its poorer southern region is French-speaking. The language issue serves as a symbol for deeply entrenched rivalries between the two communities. The problem's figurehead is the mayor of Fourons, a small town in the Flemish-speaking region of Flanders. But the majority of Fourons 4,000 inhabitants speak French. In view of this, Mayor Jose Happart has refused to conduct city hall business in Flemish.
The official's refusal to speak Flemish in Flanders was the spark which ignited the community issue and brought down the government. It also created the major stumbling block to the formation of a new government. Analysts say Mr. Happart has been sacrificed on the pyre of an extremely complex agreement. But the loss of Happart has angered many of his fellow Socialist Party members.
Under the accord, French-speakers in mixed areas gain some extra rights, but officials named by King Baudouin, such as Happart, would have to demonstrate a knowledge of both of Belgium's main languages. The agreement makes Belgium more federalized by giving Flanders and Wallonia greater decision-making powers and an annual $17 billion budget.
The broad economic lines of the agreement follow the austerity program of the previous government. One of the first aims is to lower the budget deficit to 7 percent of GNP from its current 8.5 percent.
The new government will also introduce tax reform before the August recess of parliament.
Although Belgium's unemployment level is dropping, the five parties have agreed to make a major effort to tackle the problem of long-term unemployment.
The agreement to be approved today also outlines Belgium's plans to meet the challenge of 1992. By the end of that year, the 12 member states of the European Community (EC) hope to have dismantled all barriers to the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people.
But despite agreement on these issues, there still remain some very touchy issues which have simply been swept under the carpet. The most emotive of these is the question of abortion. In Belgium it is illegal and the Flemish Christian Democrats want it to stay that way.
The five parties have been given until the end of the year to think about it. Meanwhile, Parliament will be given responsibility for ``examination of a possible modification'' of the law. This means the problem is going to be side-stepped for as long as possible.
This problem and others could be sources of controversy for the next government. And the man expected to be chosen as the next prime minister seems well aware of it. Wilfried Martens, who has led seven governments since 1979, is reported to be very enthusiastic about the prospect of leading his eighth.
He said publicly after the election that he would not share power with the socialists. Observers are wondering why Jean-Luc Dehaene has not been chosen to lead the government. The Flemish Christian Democrat was appointed by the King to try to find the common ground between political parties to get a workable coalition. The fact that any agreement has been reached is due entirely to him.
The answer is probably that Mr. Martens is Europe's second-longest serving leader (behind Britain's Margaret Thatcher) and Belgium's highest-profile statesman. As leader of the Christian Democrats he is also a guarantee that his party will not break out of the coalition.
The test of the government's stability will be the elections for local representatives in October. But even if it survives that, few are predicting how long this government will last.