Once, the survival of Belgium, a strategically placed state engulfed by both World Wars, was a neccessity. The country was referred to as Britain's revenge on the French, a state that came into being in 1830 mainly to counter French expansionism and guarantee the port of Antwerp. Now, shaken by its own internal contradictions, the place is coming to bits.
The ostensible cause of this is that Belgium sits astride a linguistic fault line, with about 60 per cent speaking Flemish, which is similiar to Dutch, and about 40 per cent speaking French. For most of the state's history, the French-speakers held the key political positions and the economic power; during the past 40 years that has changed, with a gradual estrangement of the two communities.
Most Belgians will tell you that this divide does not exist and is manufactured by the politicians for their own self-aggrandisement. They will then explain how the other community and its leaders have been consistently at fault, and have sought to use the linguistic issue for self-aggrandisement. It is an inescapable reality that relations between Flemish and French have become increasingly difficult, especially in the towns and villages where both vie for influence, and especially around Brussels. Each linguistic community has its own political parties (Socialist, Christian Democrat, Liberal and Green) and its own television, radio stations, newspapers, unions etc. Virtually the only common institution is the Royal family, which only functions through carefully crafted, often cynical compromises.
This weekend, for the first time, voting will take place within a new federal polity. The political solution to the linguistic divide has been a system with room for three communities (French, Dutch and the small German-speaking enclave in the east) and three regions (Francophone Wallonia, Dutch-speaking Flanders and Brussels, the capital region). That means that in Brussels alone, there will be three elected assemblies - the national, European and regional parliaments. There are already, in addition to this, provinces and communes, the town halls, and each layer with precisely prescribed powers, rights and responsibilities. It is compromise turned into constitutional law.
If you think all this proliferation of parliaments and bureaucracies means Belgium must be an extraordinarily well-governed state, think again. Because the key message that is likely to emerge from Sunday's election is the rejection of the political class, with voters sick of corruption, mismanagement and the immense amount of time absorbed by incomprehensible deals between the ruling parties. Politics has become revolting.
This is sleaze besides which a few nights at the Ritz in Paris or a grand for a question in the House looks pale. The long-running scandal over alleged bribes by the Italian helicopter company Agusta (Agusta denies paying anything) has already claimed four ministers and many other senior figures from the two Socialist parties. Willy Claes, former economic affairs minister and now secretary-general of Nato, spent three days giving evidence last week. Beyond this there is a hideous web of allegations that includes fraud, robbery, deception and even murder.
The far-right will benefit from the deep cynicism about the political class and the compromises they make that is felt by nearly all Belgians. The Vlaams Blok is an ugly grouping of the genuinely racist with those who feel dispossessed by the antics of their politicians. It is likely to increase its share of the vote to perhaps 15 per cent of the Flemish vote, up from 10 per cent in 1991. On the other side of the fence there is the National Front, another xenophobic group that is newer on the scene, which could see its vote increase to 6 per cent.
Belgium might be taken as the ultimate proof that proportional representation, federalism and coalitions are unworkable. Certainly, the last decade has seen government become a dirty word in Belgium: though voting is compulsory, 40 per cent would rather stay at home this Sunday, and a third has still not made up its mind which way to vote. But nothing else would work here, certainly not a British-style unitary state ruled by a first-past-the- post dictatorship of the majority.
The process is hardly edifying; indeed, for many Belgians, it is a matter of deep regret that the nation cannot stand together, but rather is disintegrating. Leon Trotsky defined "Belgianisation" as "the abandonment of national responsibilities in favour of totally commercial values" and as faith in the state evaporates, that is increasingly what is happening. Even those who feel more kindly towards the Belgians than Trotsky note the tendency towards social atomisation, the breakdown of what is supposed to be a larger collectivity into smaller groups.
The fact is that Belgium is experiencing, like many other countries, the odd paradox of the late 20th century: the nation-state has become, as the American sociologist Daniel Bell put it, too big for the little things, too small for the big things. Because of its unique problems, Belgium has perhaps known that for longer than the larger European countries; but because of its political handicaps, it has also been less well equipped to deal with that paradox.
It is the realisation that the current system is not working that is driving the country to further reform, and will doubtless take it further. It is fascinating to watch a country dismantle itself; and slowly, that is what is happening in Belgium. It is not the Czech-Slovak version, the velvet divorce; nor the Canadian version, where crisis is endlessly succeeded by resolution; nor the blood-stained Yugoslav version. This is a country that is compromising itself out of existence.
For Belgium, federalism does not mean central control: it means, as it means to most Europeans, the creation of new layers of authority below the nation-state. For this state of 10 million people, it means the virtual dissolution of a nation. At the same time, as the most federalist state in Europe, it is pushing for tighter integration within the European Union.
The core of this entity, the Belgian state itself, is gradually abolishing itself. Privatisation is removing its assets including the Belgian airline Sabena, which even considered relocating some of its staff to Luxembourg for tax reasons. The military is being enmeshed in new European arrangements, and national service - formerly a binding force - has been abolished. One of the new government's most urgent tasks will be to push for new measures so that the country can qualify for a single currency and relinquish what remaining power it has over that waning symbol of national independence, monetary policy.
As Belgium slips down the road to dissolution, it carries a powerful message for the rest of Europe. Within the European Union, the dissolution of a sovereign unit is possible without tears, without violence, without even much interest from the rest of the world. Once, fissures in a state as strategically placed as Belgium would have caused alarm bells to ring all over Europe; now it won't even make the lunchtime news. As Belgium and Europe have learnt in the last bloody century, there are worse things than compromises.Reuse content