…Yves Leterme, the Flemish nationalist (well, autonomist) (um, dominationalist?) politician who became prime minister even though he couldn’t remember his country’s national anthem, is skidding through deadlock after procedural stall after confrontation in the country’s parliament and it is not at all clear, after only seven weeks, whether his government can survive. Or his country.
What is happening in Belgium is very serious. The subject at hand, language rights in the suburban area around Brussels, is touchy but for our purposes it is secondary to the parliamentary situation. For the first time in the country’s history, the Flemish parties — from the hard-right Vlaams Belang to the Greens — are voting in unison to impose the larger community’s will on the francophone Walloon parties, which as this authoritative blog from France’s Libération newspaper points out, are also voting as a languistic block. This kind of situation, in what amounts to an asymmetrical two-partner federation (there are smaller partner bits in Belgium, but basically it’s Flemish and French), is radically destabilizing. You need, and historically in Belgium have always had, coalitions that reach across language divides. Canada’s ability to produce such coalitions across French-English language divides, thanks often to Quebec’s ability to build coalitions of circumstance with one or several majority-English provinces, has been a key to our country’s survival and success. Once it breaks down into us-against-them, a two-partner federation faces immediate existential danger. The smaller partner will see it can never have its way on sensitive issues. Despite nearly a year’s hard work, Belgium is in something very close to that situation.
Leterme is an interesting cat. This article in Le Monde quotes an unnamed “Flemish commentator” to the effect that “the only objective of Mr. Leterme is to go before his electors, soon, playing the martyr: against an electorate that understands nothing of the debate’s technicalities, he would present himself as a victim of his partners, of all francophones and of the media.” That’s not a statement of fact, but of opinion, and it’s telling that of all the various strains of analysis in Flemish-speaking Belgium, only this one would be reported to the large francophone country next door. But if it were true, this too would be dangerous. A Lucien Bouchard who ran as the martyred victim of partners, francophones and media was danger enough in Canada. Imagine a guy like that running in a smaller, simpler, more dangerously strained country — and in the federation’s larger partner, not the smaller.