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The nation that just won't work

Belgium is being forced to confront unpleasant reality, Sarah Helm reports
"In a normal country people do not go out into the streets to demand, simply, that their country enforces the law. If this happens it means their society is not functioning in a wider sense."

These were the words of Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who came to Brussels this week with messages of support for the people of Belgium. That Belgium is now seeking lessons from Italy's anti-mafia movement is the most stunning insight yet into the seriousness of the country's crisis.

The public trauma over the failure of Belgium's state institutions to prevent the paedophile killings, and suspicion over the sudden removal of Jean-Marc Connerotte, the judge who brought about the arrest of the alleged perpetrator, Marc Dutroux, was highlighted in the huge "white march" last Sunday. Today, trade unions have called a general strike, ostensibly over pay, but many believe the action is an attempt by union leaders to harness the seething public unrest.

The malaise is also being fuelled by growing anger over high-level political involvement in numerous corruption scandals which have, in recent weeks, been rekindled by revelations about the killing of Andre Cools, the former Deputy Prime Minister, shot dead in 1991, apparently in a political feud connected to organised crime. A series of leading political figures is suddenly in the frame for the murder.

For all the ferment, few Belgians have any explanations of what is really going wrong, still less any solutions. The mayor of Palermo has both. Belgium, he said, is not a "normal" country. Drawing comparisons with Italy, he said it did not function in a normal way. "In Italy, there was, at a certain moment, a blurring of morality, politics and justice," he said. "This confusion caused an explosive cocktail, which provoked a short- circuit which ended by paralysing the whole system." Italy was fighting the disease with a renewal of civic responsibility. Belgians should do the same, Mr Orlando said.

To outsiders who know Belgium only as a grey little country - the easy butt of sneering jokes (name 10 famous Belgians, etc) - the comparison with Italy seems extraordinary, not to say ludicrous. Expatriates living here get some sense of a country which "doesn't work". We sense a curious lack of community. We don't quite know what that means, but we talk of the pot-holes and dog excrement in the streets. We talk of the monstrous town-planning and the language divide. We find the machinery of everyday bureaucracy works with interminable slowness. When we cross the border into the Netherlands, we are suddenly in a country which cares about itself, so much so, that even the fields seem neatly combed.

We have read of the unsolved Brabant killings 10 years ago, when 26 people were shot dead in a supermarket, amid rumours of a right-wing coup. But we don't think of Italy. After all- where's the sun? To Belgians, however, the comparison with Italy is no longer far-fetched. They know the state is run on political patronage, not real democracy, and its wheels have always been oiled by some form of corruption.

Public duty is a concept which is hardly understood here, while private interests are paramount. Add to this the presence in southern Belgium of a large Italian population, which moved here first to work in the mines, and suddenly Mr Orlando appears to be talking sense. Andre Cools was shot dead by Italian gangsters, probably hired (by who, we do not know) in Sicily.

Some explanations about the origins of Belgian "dysfunction" are to be found in the history books. Before the creation of the state in 1831 (largely at the instigation of the British, who wanted a buffer zone to the north of France) this area of the Low Countries had always been occupied by some foreign power, its people always deeply suspicious of "government", which was simply something to be manoeuvred around, not respected.

In the early days it was the French-speaking Catholic elite which ran the country. Demands for fair representation from the Flemish community, brought about the "pillarisation" of Belgium in the early 1920s. Three "pillars" of influence evolved with their own political parties - the Catholics, the liberals and the Socialists - to make sure everyone got a share of the pie.

Perpetual manoeuvring for influence between these groups has shaped the horrendously complex system of government today. Power is devolved through two communities (each with their own federal government), three regions (each with their own government) and 10 provinces (each with their own government). In addition, the capital city of Brussels, situated in Flanders, has a French-speaking majority and is divided into 19 communes.

Belgium hardly functions as a nation-state. Jobs are carved up between political lobbies and ad hoc "mafias" (Freemasons or big Catholic families, for example) at every level. Recent protests have called for "de-politicisation" primarily of judicial appointments. Each of Belgium's 27 public prosecutors is politically selected. Each runs his own separate show. Organised crime, both home-grown and foreign, has taken root in Belgium, which is conveniently placed at the heart of border-free Europe. So infectious has Belgian corruption become that it is spreading into the European institutions.

Because every job tends to depend on a local political patron, the population is highly static, and cities maintain independent power, like fiefdoms of old. Local enmities in Belgium are deeply rooted. Everyone remembers what everyone did in the war. For example, in Sars La Buissiere, the village where the bodies of Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, the first paedophile victims, were found, the local baker hanged himself not long ago, apparently because he was still black-balled for collaborating with the Nazis.

The corrupt nature of Belgian politics, and its complexity, explains why nobody has any respect for authority. "It is not only foreigners who don't understand the place," says Willy Helin, a senior Belgian European Commission official. "The overwhelming number of Belgians don't understand their own political system either. And they don't care a damn about who is being elected - they know they are all corrupt. They wouldn't vote if it wasn't obligatory."

Martin Conway, an Oxford historian and expert on Belgium, says: "Belgians see the state as a machine which has a button you press and then what you want drops out of it. The state has been colonised by political parties."

Until recent weeks, the country has largely ignored its "abnormality". Rather than attack the rot Belgium has preferred to row over Flemish separatism, or identify its goals as those of the European Union, of which Belgium has hitherto been the most enthusiastic member. Now, the separatist argument has been temporarily played down. Belgians are abruptly asking why they do not have a proper, accountable political culture.

It was not the Brabant killings or the murder of Cools that brought Belgium to this epiphany. It was the deaths of the little children, Julie and Melissa. Belgians were ready to rub along with all manner of scandal, but not a state which could not protect its own children.

The new heroes of the hour are the parents of all the dead children, particularly Gino and Corinne Russo. It is they who are now calling loudest for reform of the state institutions. However, as the parents have already astutely judged, it is not just the authorities who are guilty of complacency and corruption. The whole of Belgian society shares complicity. The parents are directing their cries for change not just at the political class, but at the entire country, which is why their message is so painful. In a sense, the parents of Julie and Melissa are saying that the deaths of their girls were the fault of every Belgian citizen.