Comment: Lessons from the fall of Europe's foodies

UNTIL THIS week Belgium had only two national institutions: the monarchy, and food. Like the national affection for the Royal Family, eating used to be the one activity that could make French and Dutch speakers set aside their interminable language feuds.

Life in Belgium is organised around mealtimes. And the enjoyment of such things as quail breasts and wild mushrooms has as little to do with money or class as it has with the language spoken when ordering it. When you see contented families waddling through Brussels' Bois de la Cambre on a Sunday afternoon you know that they have spent the last three hours happily feasting in some modest local restaurant on faisan a la brabanconne or chicken waterzooi.

Now, thanks to a dysfunctional political system born out of accommodating the irreconcilable divisions between Flemings and Walloons, a system where corruption is endemic and where political accountability is a joke, a huge skull and crossbones has been slapped on the country's entire food production. Chocolate-makers have closed their doors and even batches of tomatoes have been turned back at the borders. The one thing that the nation could agree on has been shunned from Cameroon to Canada.

And so the catastrophe the Belgian press has labelled "Chickengate" has turned even food into an official Walloon versus Flemish issue. On Thursday, Robert Collignon, the president of the Walloon (French-speaking) region, a man who recently warned that Nazis were about to take control in Flanders, gave his opinion. French-speaking farmers who fed their animals on the lush pastures of the Ardennes were innocent victims, he said. It was the greedy Flemish, with their intensive factory chicken and pig farms, who should pay for the country's dioxin scandal.

If the shameful tragedy of the Dutroux paedophile scandal, the farce of Dutroux's armed escape from prison and the Agusta corruption trials failed to alert the rest of the world to the fact that Belgium is barely governable in its present form, Chickengate should have done the trick.

Although the contamination occurred in January and government ministers were told in March, they sat on the information for six weeks before informing either the Belgian public or the rest of Europe. It was not, in fact, until the vet called in by an insurance firm to investigate why so many chickens were keeling over, wrote to the newspapers, that the authorities came clean. Even now, two weeks into the scandal, they appear overwhelmed by the scale of what has been unleashed. PR stunts, such as getting the Prime Minister's wife Celia to be photographed seasoning a raw chicken on a grill, have done little to appease Belgium's furious European partners.

Voters in other counties would have reacted to such negligence by turfing out the government. But for many Belgians, it goes without saying that they could no more rely on the government to regulate food safety, than to lock up perverts and child-killers. They have come to expect low standards.

If voting were not compulsory it is doubtful whether the vast majority of people would even bother to try to register their disapproval when they go to the polls tomorrow.

Apathy and passive shrugging rather than outrage are the characteristics most often seen in the Belgian public's response to the scandals served up by the country's politicians. And why not, since every election simply returns a thinly disguised variation on the old multi-party coalition?

The Flemish and Walloons have never got on but the power-sharing structures they have evolved to defuse conflict have left them the most heavily governed people in Europe. Each of the four regions (Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels and the German-speaking region) has a parliament and a team of government ministers all entirely distinct from the federal parliament and national government. And then there's the dense layer of local government and bureaucracy.

The search for balance between the rival regions - which interferes with every facet of life, from the make-up of the fire brigades to the choice of song for the Eurovision Song Contest - is a recipe for corruption, greed and political patronage, with top jobs in almost every institution of state linked to party affiliation. The culture that percolates down is one in which there is no allegiance to the state. And the individual, whether a dog-owner who lets his animal foul the pavements at will or, in this case, a reckless animal-feed producer, will always put his narrow interests ahead of those of the wider community. It is little wonder that tax evasion is a national sport, or that the black economy is one of the biggest in the European Union.

What should worry the rest of us more than whether it is a health hazard to pop a Leonidas chocolate into our mouths, is that a modern European democracy - one that has been held up to us as a model for UK devolution (the Belgian voting system has already been adopted for the Northern Ireland assembly) or as an example of how a Europe of the Regions could function - could have generated such a disaster.

The Belgians are not Yugoslavs. They will never slaughter each other in their beds and, with the highest income tax rates in Europe, they have enough money to throw at their problems. But holding their country together in artificial union comes at a price. A price Tony Blair should study as he nudges Britain closer into Europe and Britain further towards devolved government.

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