BRUSSELS (AP) — Wilfried Martens, who led nine Belgian governments and the European Union's Christian Democrat group, has died. He was 77.
Martens died overnight at his home surrounded by close relatives, a family statement said Thursday. It did not provide details of where and why he died, but heart problems have long affected Martens' health and he was physically weakened over the past year.
Leading members of his party and opposition lauded Martens as a tireless leader to keep his nation of Dutch- and French-speakers together while giving the two linguistic regions ever more autonomy. Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, a French-speaking socialist said "Belgium lost one of its most prominent politicians."
Martens led governments with socialists, liberal and grand coalitions in the 1980s and early 1990s and proved capable of keeping the volatile factions in the nation together.
He also helped found the European People's Party and led the EU's Christian Democrat group for almost two decades before asking last week to be relieved from the job.
As a leader of a small nation of 10 million, he worked for more European integration among nations based on consensus politics. Martens "made a lasting mark on Europe and beyond," EPP chairman Joseph Daul said.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said "his personal efforts to integrate parties from the newest democracies in Central and Eastern Europe."
Other political leaders also paid tribute to him on Thursday.
The president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, called him "a great statesman of Belgium, Europe and an outstanding leader in the European Parliament."
EU President Herman Van Rompuy, also a Dutch-speaking Belgian Christian Democrat, remembered how Martens imposed austerity measures to counter runaway spending in Belgium during the 1980s to turn the nation around. "He lifted our country out of a morass," he said.
As much as for his political ambition, he was also renowned for a stormy amorous life, which included three marriages and five children.
A state funeral is set for Oct. 19.
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