Despite entreaties from their king, Belgium’s politicians still haven’t forged a government, more than 215 days after voters went to the polls. So last week, two Belgians launched a website counting down to the moment, on March 30, when their nation—“with loads of jerk politicians, fries, beers”—will seize the record for having the world’s longest political crisis. “Iraq took no less than 289 days to form a government. Do you think we can do better?,” the website asks. “Yes, we Belgians, we can.”
The nation’s monarch, King Albert II, 76, has pleaded for a solution. “The time has come where true courage is defined by a resolute search for a compromise that unites,” he said in a Christmas broadcast, “not something that exacerbates.” And, as a last resort, the king has also become deeply involved in running the country. Last Monday, as the political instability caused yields to soar on Belgian bonds, Albert II ordered the caretaker administration to cut the budget. The next day he refused to accept the resignation of the latest negotiator, ordering Johan Vande Lanotte to once again try to herd the parties into a coalition government.
The political impasse reflects an increasingly divided and polarized Belgian society. The Flemish, with 58 per cent of the population, speak a Dutch dialect and live largely in the north, while the French-speaking Walloons are in the south. Historically, coal mining and industry kept Wallonia wealthy and powerful, but since the ’80s, that has reversed. Now Flanders is prosperous, thanks to investment by multinationals as well as tourism, while economically depressed Wallonia depends on government handouts. And as the Flemish became increasingly irritated at sending money south, politicians gave the regions more and more autonomy, so that today the communities barely interact. Only one per cent of Belgians marry outside their own linguistic group.
Along the way, political positions have hardened. Demands by Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish nationalist N-VA party, which won the most seats in last June’s election, are believed to be behind the failure of the last set of royal negotiations. He is blunt in his assessment. “Belgium is a failed nation,” he stated recently to the German magazine Der Spiegel. And, using words that created a firestorm back home, he said that financial transfers to Wallonia aren’t “supposed to be a drip, like drugs for a junkie.”
A breakup in a nation that is the seat for many of the European Union’s most important institutions would inevitably drag all 27 EU members into the mess, as everything from citizenship to currency and debt could need to be sorted out. And in creating two countries out of one, “a new state would need to apply to become a member of the EU,” Nanette Neuwahl, a professor of European Union law at the Université de Montréal, explains. That would involve “a treaty among all members and ratification according to their constitutional requirements.” A surviving “rump” Belgium could be forced to renegotiate terms with the rest of the EU, she points out.
British wit Clement Freud once wrote, “I don’t see the point of Belgium.” Many Belgians are coming to the same conclusion.