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Belgium in 2011

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Belgium in 2011

Area: 30,528 sq km (11,787 sq mi)
Population (2011 est.): 10,971,000
Capital: Brussels
Head of state: King Albert II
Head of government: Prime Ministers Yves Leterme (acting) and, from December 6, Elio Di Rupo

Belgium was locked in political stalemate throughout almost the whole of 2011 as repeated efforts to form a coalition government came to naught. The deadlock was finally broken on December 6, when the Francophone Socialist Party leader, Elio Di Rupo, was sworn in as prime minister at the head of a six-party coalition of Dutch- and French-speaking Socialists, Christian Democrats, and Liberals. Di Rupo was the first premier from Belgium’s French-speaking community since 1979.

The breakthrough was only achieved after a succession of senior politicians, appointed by King Albert II, had earlier failed in numerous attempts since the June 13, 2010, general election to forge an agreement between different political parties. The departure in the summer from the government negotiations of the strongly nationalist New Flemish Alliance, the largest party in Flanders, helped to end the stalemate. In all, it took 541 days to form the coalition, which earned Belgium an unwelcome designation in the Guinness World Records as the country without a government for the longest period in peacetime, easily eclipsing the 207-day record set by the Netherlands in 1977.

The 177-page agreement between the government parties involved one of the largest transfers of financial and political power from the federal level to the country’s three regions. It also provided a solution to the long-running dispute in the large Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency on the edge of the capital to the satisfaction of both linguistic groups and introduced savings of €11.3 billion (€1 = about $1.35) in the 2012 national budget.

While the political maneuvers continued, the country was led by a caretaker government under Prime Minister Yves Leterme, whose previous coalition had collapsed in April 2010. Leterme’s administration could manage only day-to-day business and did not have the powers to introduce the structural reforms and budget cuts widely considered necessary, although this did not prevent Belgium from participating in the military coalition against Libyan leader Muammar al- Qaddafi. Leterme confirmed that he would leave domestic politics when he announced in September that he would become deputy secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.

While Belgium was in better economic health than many other euro-zone members, the political stagnation was having an effect. The European Commission, using new budget rules, warned in November that the country would face heavy fines if public spending was not brought under control. On November 25 the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s had downgraded Belgium’s credit from AA+ to AA, raising the cost of government borrowing.

In October the Franco-Belgian bank Dexia, once a leading lender to local authorities, became the first European bank to fall victim to the euro crisis after having been heavily exposed to Greek sovereign debt. The Belgian government agreed to guarantee 60.5% of the €90 billion rescue plan, which included splitting the bank’s operations, while France shouldered 36.5% and Luxembourg backed 3%.

In sports, runner Kevin Borlée, the winner of the 400-m gold medal at the 2010 European championships, earned a bronze at the same distance at the 2011 IAAF world championships. His twin brother, Jonathan, finished in fifth place. Tennis star Kim Clijsters won the Australian Open in January and briefly regained the world number one ranking, but she was forced to cut her season short in August after having sustained several injuries.

One of Belgium’s most prominent Flemish Liberal politicians, Willy De Clercq—a former deputy prime minister, European commissioner (1985–89), and member (1989–2007) of the European Parliament—died on October 28 at the age of 84. A little more than a month earlier, Gerard Brackx (age 80), a pioneer of Belgium tourism who founded Jetair in 1971, had died in Ostend.

by: Rory Watson