Skip to comments.Belgium: Split down the middle
Posted on 08/25/2007 11:07:16 AM PDT by knighthawk
More than ten weeks after the Belgian elections and there is still no government in sight. On 23 August, Mr Yves Leterme, the Christian Democrat who won last June's parliamentary elections and was subsequently charged with forming a new Belgian government, gave his job back.
His job was in essence: looking for a workable coalition. Any government in Belgium needs to be a coalition, as no single party is large enough to rule on its own. Mr Leterme was banking on a coalition between two parties from the Dutch speaking north, known as Flanders - and the French speaking south, known as Wallonia.
But political, ideological or even personal hurdles did not floor Mr Leterme. What has put an end to his efforts was Flemish insistence on and Wallonian resistance to what the Belgians call 'institutional reform'. As Belgian political journalist Peter de Backer of the Dutch language daily Het Nieuwsblad explains:
"The Flemish want and need reforms because that is what they promised their electorate. The French, on the other hand, promised that there would be no reform, because they fear that this will be the end of Belgium." The end of Belgium? Basically, the Flemish, who inhabit the richer and more populous parts of Belgium, want to have a bigger say in running their own affairs, without being encumbered too much by their poorer cousins in the southern, French-speaking part of the country. Peter de Backer says:
"The Wallonians believe that this means that they will get a lot less money from the federal government. That is irrational, because for the Flemish money is clearly not the issue. Reform is."
Still, fear of a breakup is not completely unfounded. In December 2006, a French-speaking television station ran a special news broadcast, in which Flanders allegedly declared its independence. It was clearly a hoax, but for some it was enough to make their hair stand on end.
So could the current government crisis get to this dramatic stage? Peter de Backer does not think so.
"We've had similar problems before and at the moment things are quite difficult. But in the end there will have to be a government and it's probably a matter of weeks before we will have enough goodwill from both sides. The end of Belgium is not the issue."
Muddling through as usual King Albert II will appoint another politician, who will have to succeed where Mr Leterme has failed. It is most likely to be a French-speaking politician, quite possibly Didier Reynders, a liberal, and currently the finance minister in Guy Verhofstadt's caretaker government. De Backer thinks that whoever succeeds Mr Leterme will have to muddle through as usual.
"Mr Leterme blames the French speakers for his failure, so now it's their turn. I would not be so sure that they'll succeed, simply because the situation has not changed since the day after the elections. So I'll be curious to see the kind of mystery solution Mr Leterme's successor comes up with."
Meanwhile, the Belgian press is counting days. It will still be some time before the current crop of politicians will surpass the record for forming a government, which stands at 126 days. And, by the way, that remains 82 days short of the Dutch record, which dates back to 1977, when the first cabinet of ministers under Mr Dries van Agt was formed in The Hague.
If people want on or off this list, please let me know.
So (besides the violence), how is the separation of Flanders from Wallonia different from the separation of Kosovo from Serbia?
In a post on BrusselsJournal.com Paul Belien brings up the question of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde district:
Since the 1970s Flemish parties have radicalized, demanding larger autonomy over welfare issues. Apart from welfare reform the next Belgian government also has to reach an agreement over Brussels. The city, which is historically Dutch, is a bilingual enclave surrounded by the Halle-Vilvoorde district of the Flemish province of Brabant. At present Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) is one large, single electoral constituency. Flanders wants to assume full autonomy over Halle and Vilvoorde, and demands that these two Flemish towns and the surrounding Flemish villages are split off from bilingual Brussels. This is also being vetoed by the Walloon parties, although four years ago the Constitutional Court of Belgium, with 50% French-speaking judges, ruled that the present situation is unconstitutional and that BHV should be split by July 2007.
The Belgian politicians are unable to solve the BHV problem, and any new elections are unconstitutional as long as the BHV constituency has not been divided into one bilingual constituency Brussels and one Flemish constituency Halle-Vilvoorde. Politically Belgium is now in a catch-22 situation: The Belgian parties are unable to form a government because they cannot agree about splitting up BHV and new elections cannot be held as long as BHV has not been split up.
Quite a mess!