Belgium doomed?

has been tracking a number of the recent posts about the future of Belgium, including this one at Crooked Timber – though I have to say I don’t really agree with the other article he links to which blames the euro!!! I am inclined to expect that this current political crisis will be resolved. It’s a classic political question: you have the mathematics for a coalition government, but the coalition partners have irreconcilable negotiating positions. One of them will back down, and it will probably be Leterme (the hardline but flaky Flemish Christian Democrat leader) who appears to be being gradually abandoned by the elders of his own party. Though if you want to have a go at forming your own Belgian government, the Gazet van Antwerpen has a little pacman-style game to help your imagination. The slang for the likely coalition, referring to the traditional colours of the Liberals and Christian Democrats, is the “Blue-Orange”, which also evokes one of the less-known adventures of one of Belgium’s best-known heroes:

(Picture from Wikipedia, which suggests that the original concept appears to be a poem by French surrealist Paul Éluard.)

Belgium will survive this year, but I was talking with a friend during the week, a former Belgian government official who resigned a couple of years back, and he reckons the writing is on the wall. Two things in particular emerged from our discussion. First of all, the mediation structures for Belgians to resolve their differences do not work well, and are reaching their sell-by date. The crisis of the last few weeks have seen the personal engagement of the King (who is not unpopular, but is not rated by anyone as a great intellect) and old men from former governments before the country had become as federalised as it now is. In ten or fifteen years time, none of them will be around any more for the next big crisis. International mediation in the Balkans has often been very successful by the way in which it has created an external locus of dialogue; parties to the dispute have been forced to explain their positions to outsiders who know nothing of their country, not just to their own electorate, and the result I think has been a certain amount of internal reflection on the limits of what is achievable. There is no such process for Belgian leaders; the Dutch and French are not very interested in the incomprehensible squabbles of people with funny accents (rather in the same way as the Northern Ireland issue leaves most people in Great Britain and the Republic cold).

Second, the role of the media is particularly serious. What is striking is that francophone Belgian and Flemish media don’t appear to be reporting adequately on each other’s perceptions. Checking teletext the other night we discovered completely different versions of the latest steps in the government crisis being told to the viewers on either side of the linguistic divide. (Which, officially at least, lies about 5 km from here; though it is in reality more porous.) was the first source I saw for the infamous Leterme interview, in which he was doorstepped on his way into the cathedral in Brussels and failed to sing the national anthem. What strikes me about the clip, watching it, is that actually this is really dumbed-down, crap journalism from RTBF. If you want to know Leterme’s views on the future of Belgium, you sit him down in the TV studio and ask him detailed questions. The fact that he performed badly when doorstepped does say something of his ability for office (poor reflexes when faced with journalists, among other things) but asking a senior politician to sing a song on his way into church is not really a fair test of anything. RTBF had an opportunity to explore the fears that many Francophone Belgians have that Leterme really wants to break up the country, and they just ran a cheap stunt instead. (Leterme, of course, is not innocent in all this; but he’ll be gone in a few weeks, and RTBF will still be there.) Unless the media acquire some maturity, and start to explore their own societies’ neuroses rather than exploiting them, the country probably is doomed. On the whole the Northern Irish media, while far from perfect, have performed much better in this respect; the fact that everyone speaks the same language back home helps but I think (based on what I’ve seen elsewhere) is not crucial.

Having said all that, we as a family are likely to nail our colours to the mast of the sinking ship of state. Young F was saying a few weeks ago that his mummy was from England, his daddy from Ireland, and he is from Belgium; and of course he’s right. You can get Belgian citizenship fairly easily by some standards (and once we’ve been here for nine years, which will be early next year, it is practically automatic, without loss of any other nationalities you may have); and given that we depend so heavily on the Belgian state for helping with our family situation, it seems only reasonable to put our loyalties in the mechanism that is helping us. (Plus, of course, if there should at some stage be a more comprehensive re-jigging of citizenships in this part of the world, it will put us in a stronger position.)

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