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End of a nation? ‘Get ready for the break-up of Belgium’

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BRUSSELS — A top Belgian politician warned the country’s citizens on Sunday to “get ready for the break-up of Belgium,” as King Albert II seeks to relaunch knife-edge coalition talks.

Leading francophone Socialist Laurette Onkelinx, considered a potential successor to party chief Elio Di Rupo, who gave up on negotiations with separatist Flemish leaders on Friday, gave her prognosis in a newspaper interview.

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“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that because if we split, it will be the weakest who will pay the heaviest price,” she told La Derniere Heure. “On the other hand, we can no longer ignore that among a large part of the Flemish population, it’s their wish.

“So yes, we have to get ready for the break-up of Belgium. Otherwise we’re cooked.

“When I look at the letters I receive, loads of people think it’s possible. (Our) politicians have to be prepared,” underlined the current caretaker federal minister for health and social affairs.

Albert II tasked late on Saturday the respective speakers of Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders state parliaments to try once more to navigate seven-party talks aimed at securing some form of government, other than the existing day-to-day formation.

That came after seven weeks of efforts by Di Rupo, who says that the biggest Flemish party, the independence-minded New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), rejected the widest set of concessions towards full autonomy for Flanders in Belgium’s tortured recent history.

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Belgium, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union until the end of the year, adding a further layer to the pressure on the sovereign, has not been able to point to a stable government since June 2007.

The stark comments from Onkelinx followed those of another leading francophone Socialist, Philippe Moureaux, who has said Belgium was on the verge of a “progressive organization of separation.”

Formerly taboo among the poorer francophone parts of Belgium, the prospect of going it alone is no longer considered so — with a third senior official, the head of the Wallonia state government, Rudy Demotte, also telling RTBF radio that “all options” are now open.

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Demotte added that Wallonia and the capital region of Brussels, the third federal state and increasingly the focus of arguments about financial settlements, had the wherewithal “to see what we can do ourselves without waiting for tomorrow.”

While located within Flanders’ borders, Brussels is officially bi-lingual, although recent studies have shown accelerating numbers of registered French speakers, including the nearly one-in-three who hail from abroad.

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Tens of thousands of Flemish people, meanwhile, took part on Sunday in an annual demonstration which consists in symbolically “encircling” Brussels by bike or on foot, to remind locals that they are surrounded by Flanders.


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Chinese restaurants starved for cash as virus hits industry

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It is lunch time in Beijing, but the only diner in Cindy's Cafe is an employee having a staff meal -- it has been closed for more than three weeks as China battles a deadly virus epidemic.

Restaurants are taking a huge hit as many people across the country of 1.4 billion have been either under some form of quarantine or are reluctant to venture outside since late January over fears of contagion.

At Cindy's Cafe in Beijing's Roosevelt Plaza, dine-in revenue has fallen to zero, and relying on deliveries hardly makes up the shortfall, said manager Cai Yaoyang.

"On a good day in the past, we could earn over 1,000 yuan ($143) a day from deliveries," Cai told AFP. "Now, it's just around 200 to 300 yuan a day. The impact is especially big."

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Rio carnival gets political in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

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Rio de Janeiro kicks off its annual carnival parades Sunday, the first of two nights of glittering, over-the-top spectacle set to pack a heavy dose of political commentary on Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

Vying for the title of carnival champions, the city's 13 top samba schools will have one hour each to wow spectators and judges with elaborate shows flush with scantily clad dancers, small armies of drummers and floats built on seemingly impossible feats of engineering.

The event is shaping up to be especially political after a year under Bolsonaro, who has deeply divided Brazil with his attacks on just about every cause close to the carnival community's heart: diversity, homosexuality, environmentalism, the arts.

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Floating Petri dishes? Coronavirus puts cruise industry in the dock

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Deadly viruses, chickenpox outbreaks and mass cases of the runs: sometimes luxury cruise ship holidays are not the trips of a lifetime elderly passengers had hoped for.

Cruise-goers have fallen sick en masse in the past, their predicament on the high seas coming into sharp focus because the holidays can cost thousands of dollars and are often marketed as trips of a lifetime.

"Cruise ships are very prone to outbreaks of common cold and the vomiting virus," said John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary University of London.

"Invariably the ships are overcrowded and with so many passengers, hygiene levels can slip."

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