Belgium's next PM learns to lead in Dutch too

AP News
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Posted: Dec 01, 2011 10:44 AM
Belgium's next PM learns to lead in Dutch too

Finally, after a world record 530-plus days of negotiations, Elio Di Rupo is on the cusp of leading his first Belgian government.

While Belgium has plenty of financial issues to resolve _ its credit rating was downgraded just last week _ one of Di Rupo's biggest challenges has nothing to do with numbers. It's communicating with the majority of Belgians in their own tongue _ Dutch _ in this linguistically divided nation.

The French-speaking Socialist has spent much of his life ensconced among 4.5 million French-speakers in the southern region of Wallonia. Up until now, he has had only an elementary need for Dutch, the language spoken by the country's 6.5 million Flemish in the north.

But now that the 60-year-old is about to become prime minister, that has changed.

"It is clear that the leader of a government who finds it difficult to speak the majority language has a problem," noted outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme.

After Standard & Poor's slashed Belgium's rating last Friday, Di Rupo led a marathon negotiating session that produced a new budget with euro11.3 billion ($15.3 billion) in savings. As one of the 17 nations using the common euro currency, Belgium has been affected by the European debt crisis.

With a full government agreement in hand, Di Rupo met with King Albert II on Thursday, and his coalition government will likely be sworn in on Monday.

Even though Di Rupo has already taken giant linguistic strides, his recent answer to a reporter's question about market reaction to Belgium's budget showed he has some ways to go.

Starting in French, he graciously switched to Dutch to please the reporter. But his halting, awkward and grammatically incorrect response meant that much of the meaning was lost in his attempt to sidestep translation.

The Flemish, already bracing for the first prime minister from south of the linguistic border in almost 40 years, are pricking up their ears, ready to pounce on any mistakes.

"You just cannot miss it," Leterme said of Di Rupo's lack of language skills on NOS Dutch television.

By Tuesday, cartoons about Di Rupo's mangled Dutch had already surfaced in the international press. And even the French-speaking Brussels daily Le Soir headlined on its front page: "Elio Di Rupo's Dutch: scandal or detail?"

Di Rupo understands his predicament and has promised to improve. In a book of interviews published Thursday, he said "Truly, I'll work on it. But I understand it perfectly."

He said he would answer legislative questions in Dutch _ "with my errors, but I will do it."

The language issue takes on extra importance because much of delay in forming a government since the June 13, 2010 election was due to a constitutional revision to grant Flanders and Wallonia more say in their own affairs.

Richer Flanders has demanded more autonomy from Wallonia while Walloon politicians have tried to hanging on to as many national institutions as possible for their financial survival. Only months ago, some observers felt the country was on the verge of dividing in two.

The N-VA Flemish autonomists won the 2010 election, but since their visions of autonomy were too extremist for Wallonia, Di Rupo stepped in and set up a grand coalition of the Liberal, Christian Democrat and Socialist groups, all three split into French and Dutch-speaking parties.

Di Rupo, the son of Italian immigrants, rose from poverty to become a chemical engineer. Now he will rule over 11 million Belgians without having won a single vote in Flanders, since parliamentary voting areas stop at the linguistic border.

"He will find it difficult to defend his policies in the north of the country. In debates, for example it is tough to improvise, tough to talk off the cuff," said professor Dave Sinardet of the University of Brussels.

But Luckas Vander Taelen, a bilingual legislator from Brussels, insisted that Di Rupo will be judged first and foremost on his policies.

"They will get on his back in Flanders if his policies are one-sided, but it won't be because of his language skills," he said.