Belgium hit a new milestone today — 450 days without a government — but still no one appears to be in any big hurry to resolve the situation.
Europe's financial crisis and feeble economic growth may scare governments from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea, but in Belgium it is a sideshow. Talks on a new Belgian government, which have been going on since the 13 June, 2010 election, were at a standstill today for a third day running.
Why? Because Green Party negotiator Jean-Michel Javaux — also the mayor of Amay, a small eastern town — had to attend a town meeting to vote on, among other things, a new police car and a computer.
Prime Minister Yves Leterme, meanwhile, was on a visit yesterday to Israel, assuring its leaders that all's well in Belgium.
But that's not really true — intractable divisions between Belgium's Dutch and French-speaking camps are looming over the nation. And because anything can become a linguistic spat, Belgium has had 45 governments in 67 years.
Francophone Socialist Elio di Rupo is the latest politician trying to form a new government — and he has had 10 predecessors since the 2010 election.
After 15 months of impasse, most Belgians seem resigned to Leterme's government of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists staying on as a "caretaker" cabinet handling routine business.
But others are stirring. Last week, judges and prosecutors in Antwerp scolded politicians for their inaction at a conference in Belgium's second city.
"Political parties are leading us to the demise of our democracy," said Public Prosecutor Yves Liegeois.
Piet Van den Bon, a Labor Court justice, claimed that illegal immigrants were pocketing undeserved handouts — a situation that "feeds a growing sense of injustice. The population expects from a government, especially in times of crisis, a readiness to act."
Just three underground stops from Brussels' idle government complex, the headquarters of the European Union watches Belgium with unease but says publicly it retains "full confidence" in the nation's ability to enact finance reforms.
However, already a 10 September deadline for government negotiators to set a draft budget for 2012 has slipped to 30 September.
Rooted in history and economic disparities, language spats have long dominated politics in this country of 6.6 million Dutch-speakers and 4.1 million Francophones. Everything — from political parties to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots — comes in Dutch- and French-speaking versions.
Dutch-speaking Flanders, Belgium's northern half, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south already have achieved self-rule in the past 30 years in urban development, environment, agriculture, employment, energy, culture, sports and other areas.
Carving up Belgium is a cherished dream of many in Flanders but a nightmare for poorer Francophone Wallonia. Flanders has half the unemployment of Wallonia and a 25 per cent higher per capita income.
Some in Flanders are pushing for self-rule in justice, health and social security — but Walloon politicians fear that ending social security as a federal responsibility will be the end of the nation.
The most accute problem in the government talks is the fate of a bilingual Brussels-area voting district that spills into Dutch-speaking Flanders. It was ruled illegal by a court in 2003 as only the city of Brussels is officially bilingual.
Francophones oppose a breakup so as not to lose Francophone voters who have moved to Brussels' Dutch-speaking suburbs.
Watching the fray is Bart de Wever. His New Flemish Alliance party, the biggest winner in the 2010 vote, seeks an "orderly breakup" of Belgium and is watching with relish as the Socialist, Christian Democrat and Green parties founder in the government talks.
"The worse things are in those talks, the better it is for the New Flemish Alliance," he told the RTBf public broadcaster.