Belgium – eight months with no government
A new world record is about to be set for political indecision
Sunday 13 February 2011
In the park opposite the Belgian Prime Minister's office in Brussels, 150,726 people have pitched camp to demand a "non-violent revolution". This is no Tahrir Square. In Belgium, politics are always fraught but never confrontational or violent. In any case, the protesters are not seeking to overthrow the government. There is no government to overthrow.
Nor is there a "real" protester or tent to be found anywhere in the park – only a few students drinking beer and kissing. The "vigil", outside the Belgian equivalent of No 10 Downing Street, is a virtual protest. It exists only in cartoon-graphic form on "www.Camping16.be", one of several websites that have sprung up to demand an end to the mother of all Belgian political crises.
Eight months after national elections, the country's "caretaker" Prime Minister is still Yves Leterme, the man whom Belgium, or at least the northern part of Belgium, rejected last June.
Next Sunday, there will be a "real" demonstration, or rather, since this is Belgium, an open-air dance, in the streets of Ghent. The dance has been convened to "celebrate" the fact that "little" Belgium is about to break a world record.
A week today, the Belgians will wrest from Iraqis the title of the country which has gone the longest after an election – 252 days – without agreeing on a new government.
The Ghent "celebration", called by Flemish students, but open to Belgians of both "linguistic sexes", will be surrealist-ironic (and therefore very Belgian indeed). It will mock the failure of 80 sets of negotiations since June to agree a national government capable of winning the support of a majority of MPs from both the north (Dutch-speaking) and the south (French-speaking) parts of the country.
Popular protest of this kind is one of the things that makes this Belgian crisis different from those that have gone before. There was a "Shame on Politicians" march through Brussels last month by 35,000 people, equally divided between French-speakers and Dutch-speakers. There is a "no-shave-until-we-have-a-government" protest, led by the actor Benoît Poelvoorde, and a "no-sex-until-you-agree" protest by a group of female Belgian politicians.
The protests are significant, if vague, straws in the wind. The demonstrators, from both sides of the linguo-cultural divide, are calling for the recognition of some form of core Belgian identity. They have not offered any detailed suggestions on how to resolve any of the political, or economic or cultural tensions that seem to be tearing Belgium apart. After eight months, not even the glimmering of an agreement is in sight. There may have to be new national elections, even though new elections are unlikely to change very much.
Because so many everyday functions of state have already been ceded over the years to regional and community governments, the absence of an agreed federal coalition matters very little. The national budget deficit was less than predicted last year, partly because there was no national government to spend new money.
Dan Alexe, a Romanian-born Belgian film-maker said: "The trains and buses still run. The police are still operating. The post is late, but then it always was late. Maybe having 'no government' is preferable to having governments which collapse all the time."
Thomas Tindemans runs EU relations for Hill & Knowlton, the international PR firm, and is the son of the former Belgian prime minister Leo Tindemans. He said: "Most Belgians are like me, despairing but relaxed. It is foreigners who tend to get excited by the crisis. But, in truth, we can't go on without a national government for ever. There are strategic decisions, international and European decisions that have been on hold for too long."
The problem (one of many problems) is that, after 40 years of tinkering with the constitution and moving responsibility for many everyday decisions to the three "regions" or two language "communities" (plus a small German minority), it has become difficult to say what the Belgian state should continue to do. Or even, some Flemings argue, whether it has any sensible role at all.
The two sets of politicians, who have been in linguistically separate parties since the 1970s, see little advantage in talking to each other any more. Their interests and, crucially, their careers have become regional, not national.
Belgium is divided by far more than language. The Dutch-speaking north, once rural and poor and looked down on by French speakers, has been economically booming for decades. It has become in effect, a vast mega-suburb which is right-leaning in its politics. The French-speaking south, once industrially powerful, has been depressed for decades but is beginning to recover. Its politics remain dominated by a largely unreconstructed Socialist party.
Imagine, therefore, a country of 10 million made up of the industrially depressed, old Labour-run parts of Durham and Yorkshire and the most booming parts of Tory-run Berkshire and Hampshire. And then add two different languages and 500 different kinds of beer.
There is also, of course, the problem of what to do with Brussels, a "French-speaking" city just within the borders of Flanders. Yves Desmet, political commentator for the left-liberal Flemish newspaper De Morgen, believes that – whatever happens – Belgium cannot split in two. "Belgium is a pair of Siamese twins, joined at the head by Brussels," he said.
But is this conundrum all that is holding Belgium together after 180 years? Is a country sometimes described as an accident of history being held together by an accident of geography? Brussels is only 18 per cent "Flemish" but it is the official capital of the Flanders region as well as of Belgium and the EU. More than 300,000 Flemings commute into the city each day from the surrounding leafy, Flemish-run (but increasingly Francophone suburbs). No Flemish politician can contemplate "losing" Brussels. No rational split could put Brussels in Flanders.
The migration of French speakers into Flemish areas around Brussels is another of the perennial thorn-bushes of Belgian politics. Possible ways of solving that issue are on the table but all questions of either dividing Belgium, or reformulating the country's messy political contract, break down on the question of Brussels itself.
Mr de Wever has hinted vaguely that he might be prepared to accept a separate Flanders without Brussels. Mr Tindemans says: "That is what we read but he must know that it is entirely unrealistic. Could Flanders, and all those Flemish commuters, really cut themselves off from Brussels? No."
Brussels is no longer a majority Francophone-Belgian city either. It has become the capital of "another Belgium", full of people from Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Italy and eastern Europe, plus wealthier permanent ex-pats from three dozen nations, connected with the EU or Nato.
The interests, and votes, of these "new Belgians" complicate an already impossible political equation but may, in the long term, help to solve it. One "new Belgian", the Romanian-born film-maker Dan Alexe, 49, said: "We haven't come all this way to find a new identity just to have that identity fractured. To me, a naturalised Belgian, there is a core 'Belgianness', which Belgians themselves sometimes forget.
"This is, fundamentally, a very gentle country, a matter-of fact country, a country that appreciates the small pleasures of everyday life. Flemings and Walloons also have far more in common than they realise."
Mr Desmet says that the "revolt" in recent weeks by both Flemish and Francophone defenders of "Belgian identity" is interesting but not politically decisive. "They represent a youngish, culturally aware, arty, well-educated section of the population, who are important, but far from being a majority in Flanders or in Wallonia," he said. "You will find them in Brussels and in the larger Flemish towns. In between, in the ex-rural, suburban sweep of most of Flanders, most people still have a sense of Flemish, not Belgian, identity."
For Mr Desmet "Belgitude" – the state of being Belgian – is almost an existential quality. "Belgitude is precisely the absence of a strong, centralising national state and a lack of insistence on one cultural identity. It is a willingness to accept different cultures and traditions and allow them work together. It should therefore be able to embrace the new "multi-culturalism" of Brussels as well as the Flemish and Francophone traditions."
For Mr Tindemans, a form of Belgium will always survive, if only for pragmatic reasons. Nothing else can make the present tangle of conundrums in the geographical area known as Belgium work better – or even work at all. "The present generation of Belgian politicians have proved that they are incapable of finding the solution," he said. A lasting settlement will have to wait for a new, younger, more broad-minded and imaginative generation of political leaders.
They will have been influenced, perhaps, by the "Belgitude" – whether emotional and romantic or coldly rational – displayed in this year's "virtual", self-mocking and therefore very Belgian demonstrations.
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