Belgium: still waiting for a government

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Oct 2 12:51:33 UTC 2007

Belgium - still waiting for a government

by Remco de Jong


*The political crisis, which has been gripping Belgium for months, is
entering a new phase now that the Christian Democrat Yves Leterme has been
charged with forming a new government. This will be his second attempt at
trying to reach a compromise between the diametrically opposed interests of
the Flemish and Walloon parties.*

  [image: Belgium-by-language.jpg]
*Map of Belgium showing the language divisions, with German spoken by a very
small minority living along the border with Germany. French is the dominant
language in the capital, Brussels, despite the city's location inside
Dutch-speaking Flanders.*In a nutshell, the crisis was sparked by a
difference of opinion on the future structure of the Belgian state. The
Flemish want autonomy in as many policy fields as possible, while the
French-speaking Walloons want to retain a strong federal state that looks
after the interests of all Belgians. This is primarily dictated by the fear
that the Walloon provinces would never be able to pay for its own needs. The
far wealthier Flemish have no such concern.

*The crisis began during the election campaigns this spring. Nearly all
Flemish parties promised the voters a far-reaching reform of the state, to
ensure Flanders would be able to make its own decisions in an even larger
number of policy fields.

However, the Flemish parties failed to mention that such drastic reforms
would require the support of the French-language parties. Belgium's
constitution makes it impossible for the six million Flemings to impose
their will unilaterally on their four million French-speaking compatriots.

The Flemish voters en masse cast their ballots for Yves Leterme; the leader
of the Flemish Christian Democratic party CD&V. Leterme won no less than
800,000 preferential votes. It was a signal from the voters who wanted to
reward the leader of a party that had spent eight years in opposition.

*[image: Belgische vlag]*

*No inclination*
It was clear that Mr Leterme was the man to lead a new government coalition
with the country's conservative parties. But it soon became clear that the
French-language parties had no inclination to cooperate on state reform.

The bad atmosphere between Mr Leterme and the French-language parties took a
turn for the worse due to a series of unfortunate media incidents. In July,
when a French journalist asked him to sing the Belgian national anthem, he
spontaneously burst into the *Marseillaise*. The unfortunate mistake was
extensively discussed in the French-language media, and interpreted as a
sign that Mr Leterme did not care about the future of the country, but only
about Flemish interests.

*No future
*Meanwhile, the Belgian electorate began to get seriously worried about the
country's future. Reputable foreign newspapers began to write about
the impending break-up of the country and concluded that the federal Belgian
state no longer had a future. Large numbers of residents in the capital
Brussels hung the national flag from their windows as a sign that they
wanted to preserve the union.

The events of the past few days have again highlighted the yawning gap
between the positions of the two sides. French-language parties have
been unanimously demanding that several Flemish municipalities be added to
the bi-lingual city of Brussels if the Flemings persist with their demand
that the Brussels electoral district be split in two.

Such a split would mean that French-speaking residents of the Flemish
municipalities surrounding the capital would no longer be able to cast their
vote for a French-speaking politician. The division would also mean they
would lose the right to use their own language to conduct a law suit.
However, the Flemish parties refuse to consider ceding even a square inch of
territory, which makes the impasse complete.

*No alternative*
The only reason that King Albert of the Belgians has now appointed someone
to form a new government any way is that the politicians involved can't see
any alternative. In a certain sense, this decision fits with the country's
surrealist tradition as personified by the famous Belgian painter René
Magritte: negotiations will be conducted, even though everyone knows full
well that there is no chance of an agreement.

Not until the Flemish parties make it clear to their voters that the
promised state reform is not going to materialise any time soon will there
be any chance of agreement. That, however, could take several weeks
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