Thursday, July 21, 2011

Belgium's Unhappy Birthday

Belgium was born in a mild revolution in October 1830, but it celebrates its National Day on July 21, as that was the day nine months later that Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (father of the Congo guy) took the oath as first King of the Belgians. So Belgium is basically celebrating its 180th birthday today. There will be a military parade in the center of town, I saw a KFOR truck driving down Rue de la Loi on my walk to work yesterday. It seems likelier than not that the country will not survive to celebrate its 200th.

I have now lived in Belgium for more than six months without the country having a government; it has lacked one for more than 400 days and counting, a world record. The problem is that the leader of a powerful minority is being intransigent and refusing to compromise because it suits his goals to prevent Belgium from functioning - much like the Tea Party-inspired hardline stance of the House GOP in the negotiations to raise the American debt ceiling. However, there is no apocalyptic deadline forcing the parties into forming a government. They already went through their turn in the second half of 2010 in the EU's rotating presidency without a government, and that went fine and was even held up as a model. The country isn't falling apart.

(Although the sidewalks of Brussels are. When I was a reporter in Saratoga Springs, I once did a story on a crack in the sidewalk by the farmer's market that was a lawsuit against the city waiting to happen. True, the US is more litigious than Europe. And there are plenty of streets and sidewalks in the EU which are falling apart. But Brussels is the third richest of the EU's 271 regions. The sidewalks in Flanders aren't like that. So why? Perhaps it's that because of the crisis, Brussels doesn't have a 2011 budget. At least it's easy to come by "Brussels blocks" for your home construction projects.)

Briefly, Belgium is divided into two regions, now mostly autonomous, and the Brussels Capital District. The country is bilingual - speaking Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, and French - but actually the only bilingual city is Brussels itself. French used to be the language of the elite, and the historic Flemish city of Brussels remains Francophone, an island surrounded by the "Flemish ring" of suburbs which separates the city from French-speaking Wallonia - only about 4 km at its narrowest point - but the rest of Flanders speaks Flemish. In nine daytrips to Flanders I have only heard French at the beach (plus at the airport, where, of course, special language laws apply). Due to an economic reversal in recent decades, Flanders produces the vast majority of Belgium's wealth, while the geographically larger but less populated Wallonia lags behind. One of the most heavily industrialized parts of the world in the 19th Century, Wallonia has suffered since its coal and iron mines dried up and became unprofitable. Flanders has a thriving and sometimes separatist nationalist movement; if Walloons have a strong sense of identity, pride, and dialect, they still want to be a part of Belgium. One reason is north to south money transfers through taxation, which the north resents and the south needs - much like Italy or the EU as a whole. [As a case in point, Liege, the largest city in Wallonia and well worth a visit, has one of the most gorgeous train stations in the world, opened in 2009 and pictured.]

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a soft separatist party perhaps comparable to Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party, won the most seats in the election on June 13, 2010 - 27 out of 150. Bart De Wever, its leader, has played hardball in the negotiations to form a government. The Francophone Socialists (PS) won 26 votes, the second most among the nine parties. Their leader Elio Di Rupo was assigned by King Albert II to try to form a government two months ago. In recent news (I get my Belgian news here for the most part), all of the political parties were willing to negotiate based on Di Rupo's proposals except the N-VA, as De Wever rejected them out of hand. The Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), the old dominant party which produced the current President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, had been unwilling to continue talks without the N-VA, but the latest news on this National Day is that parties including the CD&V will try to form a government without the N-VA. Exerting political power while officially staying out of government and avoiding responsibility can be politically smart, as irresponsible populists like Pia Kjaersgaard in Denmark and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have shown in recent years, De Wever may be taking a note from them. But that is why the CD&V has been wary to proceed without the nationalists. Still a country needs a government. Timo Soini's True Finns were supposed to join the government in Finland after their success in this year's election, but ultimately they were not included because they would have prevented bailouts to stricken eurozone countries.

Back to Belgium. Even if a government does form - and one must, sooner or later - to prevent the markets from turning to the high sovereign debt of the eurozone's sixth-shakiest economy, if nothing else - a breakup seems inevitable though not imminent. Brussels has helped hold the country together thusfar, because its fate in any breakup would be complicated. It is technically the Flemish capital, but is now a strongly Francophone city. The price of Flemish independence is that they would lose their Jerusalem. Brussels and Wallonia could form a rump Belgium - perhaps joined by a corridor through the "Flemish ring." Or maybe Brussels could become a city state like Singapore, thus dividing Belgium into three new countries. This isn't great for the city of Brussels or the European Union, as one might imagine. The EU has enough problems functioning with 27 members and there are plenty of countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe that have greater need to join as a new member than Brussels or Wallonia, who have no desire to be independent countries.

The sticky issue in the election last June and neverending government formation has been that the Flemish want to take away the right of French speakers in the Brussels suburbs to vote for French-speaking political parties. They say this is unfair because when the province of Brabant, which contained Brussels, Leuven, and Waterloo, was cut into Flemish Brabant, Walloon Brabant, and the Brussels Capital Region, Flemish speakers in Walloon Brabant lost the right to vote for Flemish-speaking parties. Honestly, I think everyone in Belgium should be able to vote for whatever party he or she wants, but the reason citizens of half of Flemish Brabant have this extra right is that they live around a metropolis, the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of Europe, host of the biggest concentration of EU institutions and the headquarters of NATO. Attempting to preserve the Flemish character of the Brussels suburbs by taking away this unique-in-Belgium right is attempting to prevent Brussels from its natural growth.

Some have called the king the last Belgian. I know others who are Belgians first, not Flemings or Walloons, and I believe many citizens of Brussels feel this way. But the king obviously has something special at stake. While I am generally not a fan of monarchy, Belgium's could help hold the country together. And Albert's message in his speech yesterday on the occasion of National Day made some good points. He warned that the well-being of Belgians could be affected if the crisis is prolonged further, a nod at dangers of the markets. He warned that the political class was leading to citizens' disillusion with possibility of politics providing solutions. And he noted that "our country with its cultural diversity has partly been seen as a model for the European Union." The Belgian crisis could "threaten the momentum of the European structure, already damaged by euroskeptics and populists."

Most of the people of Belgium do not want the country to break apart. There are still strong cultural and historic ties binding Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, even if 180 years isn't that long a period in this part of the world, where one is constantly reminded of the grandeur of towns like Brussels, Bruges and Ghent in the 1500s. But the birth and death of states is often accomplished by small groups with a clear vision and the rest of us live with the consequences.

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