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Belgian Waffling: Who Needs Government, Anyway?

5 minute read
Leo Cendrowicz / Brussels

Belgium has notched up some eclectic world records over the past year. Last April, the heaviest cheese sculpture — made with 2,330 lb. (1,059 kg) of Gouda — was carved in the coastal resort of Ostend. In July, a barman in the northern town of Hamme spent a record 102 straight hours serving beer in his café. And in August, in Ostend again, 2,875 people broke the record for group Hula-Hooping. However, this week saw what is probably the most dubious of the lot: Belgium broke the record for the world’s longest wait for a government.

On Feb. 17, the country hit 249 days without a government, breaking a record set last November by Iraq. A caretaker government has been running Belgium since elections on June 13, but despite countless negotiations among the fragmented political parties, the nation’s leaders are not even close to an agreement on a new coalition.

Some have questioned the Belgian claims to have broken the record: while it took 249 days for Iraq’s politicians to settle on a draft government agreement, the administration had to wait another 40 days before taking office. However, that just means that Belgium has to go without a government until the end of March to become the undisputed dithering champion — and few doubt that it will.

(Read “Can Protests Push Belgium to Form a Government?”)

Indeed, Belgians have already held events across the country to mark the occasion. In Leuven, in Dutch-speaking Flanders, locals handed out free French fries, while in Louvain-la-Neuve, in French-speaking Wallonia, free beer was on offer.

The tongue-in-cheek celebrations follow other efforts to push politicians into agreeing on a government, including a march last month through the streets of Brussels to protest the deadlock, a campaign to get Belgian men to quit shaving until a government is formed and a suggestion by one MP that politicians be denied sex until they can agree on a coalition.

But Belgium’s festivities mask a growing despondency about the seemingly intractable stalemate. Although its national motto is “Strength Through Unity,” Belgium is becoming increasingly divided between the 6.5 million Dutch speakers in the north and the 4.5 million French speakers in the south. In last June’s elections, the New Flemish Alliance, which advocates outright independence for Dutch-speaking Flanders, emerged as the biggest party.

Political rhetoric is becoming more bombastic: a report released Feb. 1 by the U.S. Institute of Peace says the political elites of the country, which used to serve as a model for multiethnic societies, are now stirring up tensions and exploiting linguistic differences to push a parochial political agenda. The long standoff over a new coalition has even raised fears of a Czechoslovakia-style split.

However, the absence of a government makes little difference to day-to-day life in Belgium. Many state functions, from education to welfare, have already been ceded over the years to regional and community governments. Belgium deftly helmed the presidency of the E.U. in the second half of 2010, and the caretaker government last month headed off market jitters over its debt levels by quickly agreeing on a tighter budget. The country is recovering well from the downturn, with growth last year at 2.1% (compared with the E.U. average of 1.5%), foreign investment doubling and unemployment at 8.5%, well below the E.U. average of 9.4%.

“By and large, everything still works. We get paid, buses run, schools are open,” says Marc De Vos, a professor at Ghent University and the general director of Itinera, a Brussels-based policy institute. “We can free ride for a while yet.” Still, De Vos worries about how the crisis can be resolved in the longer term. Belgium is a patchwork of Dutch speakers and French speakers, founded in 1830 on pragmatic values of cooperation and conciliation, but it lacks a sense of national unity to push people together, De Vos says.

While globalization and the E.U. have drained nationalism from the political arena in Belgium, they have also removed the belief, unity and solidarity needed to sustain any modern state. “In a globalized world, the relevance of a cohesive national state has diminished,” De Vos says. “But the downside is that the Belgian people do not feel the need to pull together.”

Indeed, despite the ironic celebrations of the no-government record, most Belgians shrug at the deadlock, not caring much so long as they can still have a beer with their friends after work. And this means that even after Belgium’s politicians finally agree on a coalition, it may be too late to engage the people, says Marco Martiniello, a politics lecturer at the University of Liège. “The delays will distance people from politics,” he says. “This will have a negative impact on democracy and reinforce the gap between government and citizens. I already see a growing sense of apathy amongst my students.”

If history is any guide, Belgium will most likely muddle along. But the longer the crisis continues, the stronger the case becomes for splitting the country. And if that happens, it would be less a victory for regional self-determination and more one for cynical complacency.

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