Obituary: Wilfried Martens / Belgian statesman helped form EU

April 19, 1936 - Oct. 9, 2013

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Wilfried Martens, a grand statesman of Belgian politics who led nine Belgian governments and helped shape what became the European Union, the world's biggest trading bloc, died Oct. 9 at his home in Lokeren, in East Flanders. He was 77.

His death was confirmed by Kostas Sasmatzoglou, a spokesman for the European People's Party, the center-right grouping in the European Parliament that Mr. Martens helped found and that he led for 23 years.

No cause was given. Mr. Martens had long been treated for heart problems.

A Flemish Christian Democrat, Mr. Martens was prime minister of Belgium from 1979 to 1992, except for a brief interruption in 1981.

He is credited with keeping together his linguistically divided country, split between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

He sought greater autonomy for the regions, yet he remained an ardent federalist, even as the country became increasingly polarized by nationalists pressing for separation.

Mr. Martens was a member of the generation of European leaders, including former Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany and former President François Mitterrand of France, who worked for greater European integration and laid the groundwork for today's European Union.

His European People's Party is the largest grouping in the European Parliament.

Born to a family of farmers on April 19, 1936, in Sleidinge, in East Flanders, Mr. Martens became politicized at a young age, advocating from the age of 14 for the creation of a "civilized Flemish" language that would help empower Dutch-speaking Belgians and enable them to compete with the French-speaking elite that was then dominant.

In the early 1960s, he organized two important marches in Brussels for Flemish rights.

A polymath, he held a doctor of law degree and degrees in notarial studies and philosophy.

After becoming prime minister at 42, he presided over coalitions on both the right and left and helped shepherd the country through a period of economic crisis in the 1980s.

He promoted major institutional changes, including the establishment of Flemish and Walloon regions, which put the country on the path to becoming a federal state.

An advocate of fiscal austerity, he is also credited with preparing the groundwork for Belgium to join the euro, the single currency, in 1999.

In his later years, he remained a statesman and chief counsel of sorts to the nation.

When Belgium was torn by political crisis in 2008, after the government resigned amid allegations that officials had sought to influence a high-profile court case, the Belgian king, Albert II, turned to Mr. Martens to resolve the conflict.

world - obituaries

First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM


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