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Eyskens, Gaston (Belgium)

Reference work entry

Introduction

Gaston Eyskens was elected Belgian prime minister three times (1949–50, 1958–61, 1968–73) and presided over some of the most momentous occasions in his country’s history, including the ceding of independence to Congo, and the abdication crisis of Léopold III.

Early Life

Eyskens was born in Lier on 1 April 1905. His first appointment of interest was a professorship of economics at the Catholic University of Leuven in 1931, but his political career did not begin until 1939 when he was elected as a Catholic (now Christian Socialist) Party member for the Leuven district.

Career Peak

Having established himself in parliament, Eyskens rose to the position of Minister of Finance, an office he held from 1945–9 under the governments of Van Acker, Spaak and Harmel. He then became the leader of the Christian Socialist-Liberal coalition government, and served until the following year when the controversy ignited by plans to allow the exiled King Léopold III to return to Belgium. A poll in 1950 revealed widespread Catholic and Fleming support for the king’s return, however, large proportions of Walloons, Liberals and Socialists opposed the idea. Léopold eventually renounced his sovereignty in favour of his son Baudouin in 1951. The crisis surrounding the so-called ‘Royal Question’ culminated in the withdrawal from the cabinet of several anti-Léopold Liberal ministers, and also in Eyskens’ resignation.

Eyskens returned to head the government in 1958 for two consecutive, but incomplete, terms. Whilst in office he managed to resolve a long-standing dispute by enacting the Schools Pact which granted equal financial aid to public and parochial schools. Pressure was growing on the government to grant the Congo independence, since Belgium could no longer afford to maintain the colony, either politically or economically. Eyskens was instrumental in persuading parliament to relinquish the Congo. Having gained its independence the Congo was plunged into civil war, and the ensuing bloodbath coupled with Belgium’s domestic economic difficulties led to the collapse of Eyskens’ government. After a brief term as minister of finance, Eyskens embarked on his third and final tenure as prime minister. He was largely successful in concluding the revision of the constitution, however growing tensions between the Flemish and French language communities meant that Eyskens was unable to insert an article concerning regionalization into the document, with the result that in Nov. 1972 he again stepped down from power.

Later Life

Following his retirement from politics, Eyskens became the chairman of the Kredietbank NV in Brussels, and was made a viscount by King Baudouin. He died on 3 Jan. 1988.

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