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'Wise men' strike devolution deal
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11:13, February 26, 2008

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Eight Belgian elder statesmen yesterday reached a breakthrough deal on further devolution that could end eight months of political deadlock and lead to formation of a new government within a month.

The "wise men" council, including interim Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and his predecessor Jean-Luc Dehaene, had tried to bridge the gulf between Flemish parties that demanded more power for Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking parties that had resisted any change.

"There is a full agreement on state reform," said the prime minister's spokesman.

Both issues need to be settled by March 20 when Verhofstadt plans to step down and make way for a permanent administration led by Flemish Christian Democrat and former Flemish premier Yves Leterme.

Divisions over further devolution led to political deadlock for over six months last year after June elections, prompting speculation that the 177-year-old country might break apart. Verhofstadt was reappointed premier after talks twice collapsed.

Under the deal reached early on Monday, the interim five-party government would try to transfer a series of minor powers to the regions and pursue measures to strengthen cooperation between the regions.

The successor government would then seek to enact a second, more significant, package before parliament's summer recess at the end of July. This would include control of labor market, health and family policy.

The proposals today will be put before the "Octopus group", an eight-party parliamentary committee charged with settling the country's future. By then core cabinet members should have agreed on the budget.

Source: China Daily/Agencies

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