New Belgian government sworn in, ending crisis

December 6, 2011 - 12:40 PM
Belgium Government

Elio Di Rupo takes the oath during a swearing-in ceremony with Belgian King Albert II as the first French-speaking Belgian prime minister in nearly 40 years, after formally ending the record 541 days the country has gone without a government, at the Royal Palace in laeken, near Brussels, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011. The swearing-in is a long-awaited relief to the entire nation of 6.5 million Dutch speakers and 4.5 million French speakers who long ago grew frustrated with the deadlock between politicians over linguistic differences. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Socialist Elio Di Rupo took the oath as Belgium's first Francophone prime minister in nearly 40 years on Tuesday, formally ending a record 541-day government impasse.

In a ceremony at the ornate royal palace, the son of Italian immigrants completed a remarkable personal journey that took him from an impoverished childhood in Belgium's rustbelt south to become the leader of Belgium.

Amid small talk and jokes with King Albert II, the 13 ministers and 6 state secretaries took the oath, much to the relief of the nation of 6.5 million Dutch speakers and 4.5 million French speakers frustrated with lawmakers' inability to form a government over linguistic differences.

The monarch said during the ceremonies that "there is a lot of work at hand."

One of Di Rupo's first tasks will be to attend the European Union summit of government leaders starting Thursday. Like several other eurozone nations Belgium has come under increasing pressure from financial markets, a situation which was compounded when Belgium's government negotiations kept dragging on.

"541 days of negotiations, 915 days to govern," headlined Het Nieuwsblad daily, referring to the next election date.

He will lead a grand coalition of Socialists, Christian Democrats and Liberals, each split in Dutch- and French-speaking parties. All together they have set out to make Belgium's high debt and worsening economic situation the government's main priority.

Among Di Rupo's leading ministers, outgoing finance minister Francophone liberal Didier Reynders became foreign minister and Dutch-speaking Christian Democrat Steven Vanackere made the reverse move.

Dutch-speaking socialist Johan Vande Lanotte — experienced in finance and budgetary issues — was named economics minister.

Belgium's credit rating was downgraded less than two weeks ago, a move which spurred the negotating parties into agreeing on a budget almost overnight.

Di Rupo said that next year's budget will have a deficit of 2.8 percent of GDP to remain within the EU target. He called the euro11.3 billion ($14.95 billion) in austerity measures a step toward assuring a balanced budget in 2015 and the toughest measures taken by the nation in some 70 years.

Belgium has had only a caretaker government since June 13, 2010, as a series of negotiators tried and failed to bridge the divide between the country's linguistic groups.

Di Rupo's knowledge of Dutch has long been criticized as insufficient, but as he made the presentation of his ministers to the king he went out of his way to introduce some of them in the nation's majority language. He has promised to improved his language skills during his term in office.