Belgian parties reach breakthrough in gov't talks

Dutch-speaking and Francophone parties reached a major breakthrough Thursday in negotiations to form a new government a record 15 months after elections.
The eight parties announced they reached a deal on the breakup of an electoral district in and around bilingual Brussels, an issue that had vexed politicians for almost half a century and was at the heart of the record-length standoff between the linguistic groups as they sought to reform the constitution.
The parties said in a statement that the negotiations on other issues such as economic and social policy will continue later Thursday.
"Our work is far from over, and we still need a lot of negotiations," said the joint statement.
Still, after a 459-day government stalemate, already considered by far a world record, news of the breakthrough was lauded in the local media as historic.
"We have crossed a difficult bridge," said Joelle Milquet, the head of the Francophone CdH party.
Over the past months, politicians increasingly started worrying about the pressure of financial markets doubtful about the long-term future of the country.
Caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme took as many social and economic decisions as his remit allowed but negotiators realized drastic action had to be taken, especially after Leterme announced early this week he would leave his post at the end of the year at the latest.
The June 13, 2010, elections brought the Dutch-speaking separatist N-VA party to the fore, and at first it was including in the protracted negotiations.
But when no compromise could be found, the traditional parties which have dominated Belgian politics for years decided to try it on their own in July.
The insistence on more self-rule in northern Belgium for its 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings was always central in negotiations. The parties representing the 5 million Francophones living in southern Wallonia and Brussels sought to maintain an institutional status quo.
The negotiators stressed however, many hurdles still needed to be cleared until a new government take office.
"Every party can still endanger everything," said Wouter Beke, the head of the Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats.