Former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene dies at 73

Belgian-French financial services group Dexia Chairman Jean-Luc Dehaene attends the Dexia Parliamentary Committee at the Belgian Parliament in Brussels November 7, 2011. REUTERS/Thierry Roge

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, a major figure in European politics throughout the 1990s and a renowned advocate of deeper European integration, died on Thursday aged 73, his party said.

Dehaene died after a fall while on holiday with his wife and friends in Brittany, France, a spokesman for the Belgian Christian Democrats said.

He had been suffering poor health for some time although he still attended party events and was involved in drafting new financial rules for European soccer teams.

"He fell and it appears that it was related to that rather than any illness," the spokesman said of his death.

Dehaene served as prime minister from 1992 to 1999, overseeing Belgium's transformation into a federal state by amending the constitution and introducing direct elections for the parliaments of Belgium's separate communities and regions.

He had appeared set to succeed Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission, one of the continent's most powerful jobs, but his candidacy was vetoed by British Prime Minister John Major in 1995.

A much-respected figure in Belgian politics, Dehaene's time in office was nonetheless marked by unfortunate events.

He withdrew Belgian forces from Rwanda in 1994, shortly after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were murdered, a decision that some regarded as a capitulation. More than 800,000 Rwandans were killed shortly afterwards in a genocide that lasted barely three months.

The government was also criticized over its handling of the case of child murderer Marc Dutroux, particularly over deficiencies in the police and justice system. Dehaene lost power in an election in 1999 after a scandal involving dioxin in food.

Dehaene subsequently became a member of the European Parliament and chairman of Franco-Belgian financial group Dexia after its 2008 state bailout.

More recently, Dehaene, a keen supporter of Belgian side Club Bruges, headed a panel looking into soccer club finances for UEFA, the governing body for the game in Europe.

UEFA had been expected to announce the results of the investigations in the next few days, with big-spending clubs like Manchester City and Paris St Germain facing punishment under the new rules.

A large man with a gruff attitude, Dehaene earned nicknames "the bulldozer" and "the plumber" for his ability to find quick-fix solutions and was regarded as a consummate dealmaker.

"Jean-Luc Dehaene was an exceptional servant of Belgium, both on a socio-economic and an institutional level," Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said in a statement.

"He also had a clear vision of a stronger Europe that was close to its citizens."

(Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop; Additional reporting by Keith Weir; Editing by Luke Baker and Robin Pomeroy)