Belgian Martens, Leader in Time of Debt, Devolution, Dies at 77

Wilfried Martens, the most prolific prime minister in Belgium’s history, died early today after a long illness. He was 77.

Martens, from the Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders, presided over nine governments from 1979 to 1992, deepening Belgium’s integration in the European Union while leaving a legacy of debt that continues to burden the country.

From his campaign as a student activist for greater use of the Dutch language at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Martens played a role in a series of constitutional reforms that handed powers from the central government to the Dutch- and French-speaking regions.

“Belgium today has lost one of its most eminent politicians and a true statesman,” current Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, the first French speaker to run Belgium since the 1970s, said in an e-mailed statement. “A convinced European, he pursued to the utmost his commitment to achieving the European ideal.”

Martens progressed from a Belgian political career to a European one, serving a term in the European Parliament and chairing the European People’s Party -- an umbrella group uniting center-right parties -- from 1990 until his death.

Born on April 19, 1936 in Sleidinge in Flanders, Martens studied law at the Catholic University of Leuven and worked five years as a lawyer before entering politics.

Martens is survived by his third wife, fellow Flemish politician Miet Smet. He had five children from two previous marriages. Martens will be buried Oct. 19 in Ghent, the Belga news agency reported.

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