New Belgian government reluctantly joins in nuclear export accord

Sept 13, 1999


by Gerrard Raven

BRUSSELS - Belgium's new coalition government avoided a crisis last week by reversing a ban on the sale of equipment to a Pakistani nuclear plant.

The row over the export of surveillance equipment to the Kanupp plant had threatened to expose deep fissures in the right-left-green coalition formed in July under Dutch-speaking Liberal Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

The outgoing government, led by Christian Democrats, had given an export licence for the 60 million Belgian franc ($1.56 million) contract to a GEC Alsthom plant at Charleroi in the French-speaking south of the country.

But the new energy minister, Olivier Deleuze of the green Ecolo party, revoked the licence within days of taking office to the consternation of the more established Francophone coalition parties, who were worried by the implications for jobs.

Verhofstadt told a news conference that the cabinet had decided to grant the export licence after all.

But it had agreed that before the goods left Belgium, the Kanupp plant, at present closed for maintenance, must start up again, and Pakistan must sign an international accord known as the Full Scope Safeguards Agreement.

Countries signing this accord undertake among other things not to use their civil nuclear power capability to further their military ends.

Verhofstadt said his government would require the same safeguards before granting any future application for an export licence to the nuclear industry elsewhere in the world.

"We have taken a clear decision in this affair," he said.

In an apparent snub to Deleuze, Verhofstadt said decisions on any future applications would be taken by his foreign affairs and economy ministers, calling this "a very radical simplification in the procedure".

The new government came to power after a general election in which voters punished the centrist Christian Democrats for the way they tackled the dioxin-in-food crisis which hit the country's farms and food industry earlier this year.

It consists of an uneasy alliance of six parties - French and Dutch-speaking Liberal, Socialists and Green groupings.

Belgian politics are traditionally bedevilled by strained relations between the parties representing the country's two main linguistic communities.