[lg policy] Belgium breaks Iraq=?windows-1252?Q?=92s_?=world record for government impasse
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Tue Mar 22 14:45:07 UTC 2011
Belgium breaks Iraq’s world record for government impasse
Belgium, split between the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking
south, still doesn’t have a government after June elections last year.
The rift may eventually cause a national divorce.
Belgium is a ‘failed nation,’ Flemish nationalist Bart de Wever is
heard to say often, and it ‘will evaporate of its own accord.’
By Robert Marquand, Staff writer / March 21, 2011
Belgium, home of the European Union and NATO, recently logged a
bizarre world record: In February it eclipsed Iraq as the nation
longest unable to form a government after elections. And there doesn't
appear to be any end in sight to the more than 270-day standoff that
could ultimately lead to a national divorce between Belgium's two main
ethnic groups, the Dutch Flemish and the French Walloons.
People took part in a march of ‘shame’ in Brussels to demand a
government. Belgium is in the midst of an unprecedented impasse
between French- and Dutch-speaking factions.
"The aim now is not simply to force us to speak Dutch, but for French
to leave," she continues. "The majority do learn Dutch. I'm perfectly
fluent in both languages; the entire city hall staff is bilingual. But
as rights are removed year after year, it is clear that even if we are
all bilingual, that would not be enough, because we are still not
culturally Flemish. I've been mayor for 22 years. But I'm no longer
brought into decisions. When decisions are made, I read it in the
The rules stem from Flemish interpretations of federal laws adopted in
1994, according to Willy Fautre, head of Human Rights Without
Frontiers in Brussels. Francophones argue that the Flemish can't
reinterpret laws to suit their interests. But Mr. Fautre says the 1994
federal changes "allowed for interpretation … that has emphasized and
strengthened the separate identity question."
Wallonia was not always the underdog. For most of Belgian history,
Francophone elites ran the country. Flanders was poor and rural.
Wallonia was a steel and coal capital of Europe. Francophone
aristocrats in the 19th century controlled the port of Antwerp in
Flanders. In World War I, Flemish foot soldiers took orders from
French-speaking officers they often didn't understand, resulting in
great casualties. One result was a Flemish and anti-French pacifist
movement. The initials of its motto, AVV-VVK (Everything for Flanders
– Flanders for Christ), appeared on the masthead of the leading
Flemish daily, de Standaard, from 1918 to 1999.
After World War II, the fortunes of the two communities reversed.
Flanders began to rise in the global economy, and Wallonia receded
into rust-belt status. A drive from the port of Antwerp through
Brussels to Wallonia feels like a drive through three different
Trapped by 'the rules of the game'
For Brussels' cosmopolitans – and many younger people here – the
standoff is a dark time. Few seem to see a way out and the
Constitution, which many call incoherent, does not offer clear
solutions. Political figures seem trapped by "the rules of the game"
and stuck in petty squabbles, says Mr. Lagrou. "The rules must be
changed, and no one sees how to do this, and so we feel trapped in a
system of degeneration. Belgium needs a new Constitution and a new
federal system … but how?" he wonders.
Just north of Brussels are charming Flemish suburbs with French
minorities. Dutch is the only official language here. Down a side
street of one town is a tile shop belonging to a Francophone who
didn't want his name published. He's owned the shop most of his life
and wants his son to take over, but he's pessimistic. He's also
clearly spooked. Last year, as sales fell, he put small, bilingual
business cards on his counter in hopes of getting more business from
A week after the cards appeared, the police came and gave him 24 hours
to remove them. "They were not friendly," he says of the police.
Now he feels as though others in the city look at him differently, he
says, and petty differences seem larger. "It's sad, it's sad, it's
sad," he says. "The police won't speak French to us. They act like
they don't understand anything we say, and they've become rude and
hostile. But when they go to the Greek fish seller, I hear them
speaking French. I don't know what is happening to us."
This is a scenario that alarms European leaders, who are already
straining to keep a deficit-challenged Europe unified – and who don't
want separatists in Spain, Italy, or anywhere else to take heart from
potentially destabilizing examples.
The Belgian divide between the 6.5 million Dutch-speaking Flemish in
Flanders, to the north, and the 4.5 million French-speaking Walloons
in Wallonia, to the south, used to be a charming joke. Not now. The
two have drifted further apart. Dutch and French speakers don't
connect much, or even watch the same television. Their regions enforce
language laws that are polite codes for ongoing separation, especially
for the Flemish. Flanders is widely seen as Europe's most conservative
region, barring Bavaria in Germany; Wallonia, by contrast, is run by
The issue gets little attention because prior impasses were always
reconciled in midnight talks, because Belgian dynamics are complex
enough to turn Middle East experts cross-eyed, and because separation
never sat well in mainstream Flemish politics, where it was seen as
extreme in a country where being relaxed is a national pastime.
But who would get Brussels?
Looming over all divorce scenarios is an impossible math problem: Who
would get Brussels, which is in Flanders, but is 85 percent
The rise last June of a heavy-set Flemish politician, Bart de Wever,
has begun to simplify some things, for better or worse.
Mr. de Wever is a "soft" nationalist. He doesn't sell hatred of
Muslims or Jews the way the far-right Flemish Vlaams Belang party
does. De Wever says he believes in Europe – especially in an
De Wever first came to national attention in 2008 in the finals of a
Flemish TV quiz show called "The Most Intelligent Person in the
World." He is a "retail" politician who hits the road three or four
nights a week, visiting pubs and gatherings with a message that the
prosperous Dutch-speaking north should no longer underwrite social
security and transfer payments to the poorer French south.
Politically, this sounds like German Chancellor Angela Merkel's rap on
Mediterranean states with lax fiscal discipline, whichexpect bailouts
in times of deficit crisis. It has both populist and pocketbook
De Wever's passion for a monolingual Flanders is criticized as
paradoxical in a Europe already multilingual, and where Arab, German,
French, Turkish, and African populations are ever more mixed in places
like downtown Brussels. But if that's true, it's not sinking in.
In June elections, de Wever won an unheard-of 30 percent across
Flanders, enough to put his party in first place in a fractious field.
No self-avowed nationalist had ever polled more than a few percent in
'We can't live together'
More deeply, what de Wever managed to do was legitimize for the first
time the idea of separation among the Flemish mainstream. As
confidence in traditional parties fell, he stepped in with some
"honest" Flemish straight talk: We can't live together; the
Flemish-Wallonianmarriage is over; we are Mars and Venus, and the
sooner we accept it, the easier things will go; there are at least six
nations smaller than Flanders in Europe.
De Wever refused to be prime minister and he now avoids open talk of
"separatist adventures" which, as a conservative, he opposes. Yet he
does openly and often call Belgium "a failed nation," and in December
told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that "Belgium will evaporate of
its own accord."
"De Wever can't be the prime minister of a country he wants to split,"
says Karel Lanno, head of the Center for European Policy Studies in
Brussels. "I understand Wallonia's fears. But Wallonia should look at
the example of Slovakia. Slovakia has worked its way up." Slovakia
separated from the Czech Republic in a "velvet divorce," becoming
independent on Jan. 1, 1993.
Since August, de Wever has conducted fruitless talks with Wallonia's
Socialists. At first, analysts felt his lack of experience and delay
tactics would see him crash and burn politically. But if anything, his
popularity in Flemish polls has steadily increased.
Currently de Wever wants the Francophones to give, in writing, a plan
for a "confederal" Belgium that would reduce fiscal transfers to the
south, before a government is formed. Wallonians, however, see
confederation as a fatal step toward divorce. They oppose it and want
to form a government before talks on de Wever's proposals. Neither
side appears willing to bend.
"De Wever now constantly drives home the point that the state is
dysfunctional," says Pieter Lagrou, a political scientist at the Free
University in Brussels. "In the current climate, every time he says it
makes it more true."
Culture wars in the suburbs
For a Francophone perspective, one can drive 15 miles south of
Brussels to Rhode-Saint-Genese (or, as Flemish signs have it,
Sint-Genesius-Rode). It is a charming suburb of parks and greenery,
and has a French majority in a Flemish zone. It is one of six towns
that 1963 laws guaranteed equal protection for language groups, making
it a destination for affluent Francophones from Brussels. Still, the
culture war is ever present.
The mayor of Rhode-Saint-Genese, Myriam Delacroix-Rolin, is a tall,
striking woman who speaks in careful paragraphs. She became mayor in
1989 but says recent years have become a nightmare of new rules aimed
at making life unpleasant for French-speakers. Her list of grievances
is long: Flemish enterprises buy up newly emptied apartments and won't
sell to French-speakers. New policies target housing, schools, and
sports that involve the French language. Flemish children can't go to
French schools and investigators now ask children what magazines their
parents read, to catch violators. Public libraries with more than 25
percent non-Dutch books are denied funding. French-language
schoolteachers must pass a rigorous test in Dutch. And so on.
"For the Flemish, the main idea is a birthright of the soil, a claim
on territory and the right to control it," says Ms. Delacroix-Rolin.
"For the Francophones, the issue is the universal rights they are
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