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Another wet Belgian summer, another government crisis. Bad weather and political disarray appear to be inseparable in the small, flat country that hosts the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. Black clouds were hanging over the coalition government of Yves Leterme, Belgium’s prime minister, long before he tendered his resignation to King Albert II on Monday night. Now the clouds have burst, exposing Mr Leterme’s inability to broker a deal on the complex disputes between Dutch and French speakers that lie at the heart of Belgium’s woes. Mr Leterme’s short-term political future is, however, a different question from whether this week’s storm will turn into a cyclone that sweeps away Belgium as a state. With every crisis Belgium appears to edge a little closer to the precipice, without ever falling off.

Would it matter if it did? The boundaries of Europe’s nation states are hardly immutable. Over the past century they have changed more, and more often, than is sometimes recognised. Germany in its present form did not exist until 1990. Poland was not a state 100 years ago and its border today lies far to the west of where it was between 1918 and 1939. Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have disappeared. Since the Berlin wall came down in 1989, a rash of micro-states has broken out across Europe, the latest being Kosovo, which declared independence in February. From Scotland to Spain’s Basque country, from the Bosnian Serb sub-state of Republika Srpska to the breakaway region of Transdniestria in Moldova, dreams of independence in small, often ethnically based political units refuse to die.

In Belgium’s case, some say that its membership of Nato, the EU and the 15-nation eurozone, plus a political culture on both sides of the language divide that abhors violence, guarantee that the country’s break-up could be managed peacefully and without a descent into economic instability. But, at least as far as the economy is concerned, this view may be a touch too sanguine. Consider Belgium’s public debt, which amounts to 85 per cent of gross domestic product. Padhraic Garvey, the head of investment-grade debt strategy at ING, the Dutch financial group, says: “If Belgium were to split, there would be a huge debate about who owns the debt, with associated risks for coupon and redemption payments.”

The difference in yield between Belgium’s 10-year government bonds and those of Germany, although small, has tripled over the past 12 months, a period of exceptional political turmoil. The latest bout of uncertainty will not appeal to foreign investors, who play a massive role in Belgium’s highly open economy, with US, French and other companies accounting for more than 10 per cent of total employment. Meanwhile, sensitive and high-profile appointments in Belgium’s state administration and business world may be delayed or gummed up. With Mr Leterme’s government adrift, it may be harder to find a replacement for Didier Bellens, chief executive of Belgacom, the country’s dominant telecommunications company. The state has a 50 per cent shareholding in Belgacom and business people say Mr Leterme’s government wanted a fresh face in charge.

Such complications are trifling, however, in comparison with the task of solving “the Brussels question” if Belgium’s political classes really decided to abolish their 177-year-old state. Brussels, Belgium’s capital and the home of the EU’s most important institutions, is a mainly French-speaking island in the Dutch-speaking sea of Flanders, which forms the northern half of Belgium. Apart from Wallonia, the French-speaking south, there is also a tiny German-speaking enclave in the east. If Belgium, a federal state that has become increasingly decentralised since 1970, were to be dissolved, Brussels would be the prize asset. That is why francophone militants want to unite it with Wallonia and why Flemish nationalists are equally adamant that they will allow no such step. To detach Brussels from both Flanders and Wallonia and declare it some sort of free-standing EU entity is a proposal that appeals to neither French nor Dutch speakers.

The enormous difficulty of defining the status of Brussels in a world without a Belgian state touches on other quarrels that divide the country’s politicians. Behind the turmoil in Mr Leterme’s government lies a dispute over an electoral district called Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV). Uniquely in Belgium, this district allows French-speakers in the mainly Flemish Halle-Vilvoorde to vote for francophone candidates outside their home area. Elsewhere in Belgium, Dutch speakers must vote for Flemish parties and francophones for Walloon parties. Flemish politicians want to end the BHV anomaly; francophone politicians want to keep it. Mr Leterme could not break the deadlock and handed his resignation to his king. “It’s outrageous to let the coalition collapse over something as futile as splitting a voting district,” sighs Mark Eyskens, a former prime minister.

The BHV dispute testifies to the risks, in a multilingual country, of an electoral system in which politicians have no incentive to seek support from voters outside their own linguistic community. Imagine English-speaking and Spanish-speaking politicians in the US crafting their respective messages exclusively to anglophones and Hispanics, for an idea of the pickle Belgium has got itself into. At the same time, there are longer-term explanations for the divisions in Belgian political and civic life. Flanders has steadily pulled away from Wallonia in prosperity over the past 50 years and the Flemish resent paying taxes to subsidise the poorer south. “The money has not helped the Walloons but turned them into welfare addicts,” declared a recent editorial in The Flemish Republic, a newsletter that supports secession.

Such opinions are hotly contested in Wallonia but economists say there is more than a grain of truth to the argument that the south is more favourable than Flanders to government intervention in the economy. Such differences of political philosophy compound the problems created by Belgium’s geographical and linguistic divisions, its electoral system and the extreme decentralisation of the state. The pressure for a formal split comes largely from Flanders, where some polls suggest that slightly more than half the population support independence. However, some Walloon political activists favour the union of their region with France - in spite of a not entirely happy experience of French annexation and rule between 1795 and 1815. Three years ago, Mr Eyskens told a conference in London: “Belgium is a wonderful country and, if it were not to exist, it should be invented.” Friends of Belgium agree with the first part of that statement. As for the second, one answer might be: Yes - but perhaps not in its present form.

Dit opiniestuk verscheen ook in The Financial Times.

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2 Reacties:

At 22:32 Larry Hayes said...

There does seem to be an affinity for socialism hard-wired into the French identity whether you are talking about Wallonia, Quebec, or France herself.

At 22:33 Larry Hayes said...

All French-speaking people just love socialism: France, Wallonia ànd Québec!


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