Is Belgium a model European?
Herman Van Rompuy, Elio Di Rupo, Kris Peeters, Joelle Milquet and Johan Vande Lanotte. If you know who these people are, your political awareness is probably way ahead of most foreigners living in Belgium.
The Belgian presidency of the EU (which began on 1 July and ends on 31 December) is as good a reason as any to examine what's happening in this country. Is Belgium a model European state? After all, it's a multi-lingual nation and a founding member of the union. As we reach the end of Belgium's 12th presidency, what state is the country itself in? Will it still be here when its turn comes around again in 14 years or so?
The idea that Belgium might be a model for anything has produced snorts of derision now rippling through this corner of the internet. Most of us foreign types would say that Belgium has a complicated and unworkable political structure.
Too many levels of government, ridiculously high taxes and social security contributions, surreal bureaucracy – these are all familiar topics for dinner party conversations.
For those of us who want to understand more, however (and surely we do, otherwise why bring up these subjects over the entree and continue with them all the way to the pub after dinner?), a little recap might be helpful.
We had a general election on 13 June. Voting is compulsory in Belgium – yes, yes, it's probably not the same where you are from but it is in Australia (where I come from) and I think that's just fine. Nearly half a year later we still don't have a new federal government. The country is being run by a caretaker administration. There's a global economic crisis simmering away and relations between the two main language “communities” are, by all accounts, at an all-time low.
From armchairs all across the country, at kitchen tables, office water coolers and in restaurants one sad refrain can be heard, “the country will be split in two... but what will happen to Brussels?” It's a cry for political leadership.
How long ago Belgium's woes began, and why, would make rich pickings for an academic career. Some say the constitution, adopted in 1831 but substantially revised since then, institutionalised Belgium's sectarianism.
Originally, the country was organised into three levels of government: national, provincial and municipal. This is a familiar model to people from most countries. You go to your town hall for local matters, the school syllabus in your state or province differs from that of the other states/provinces and every so often you vote a new national government into power. It's all enshrined in a constitution or equivalent, a kind of bedrock for the organisation of society.
It's not so different in Belgium, only here the constitution is not so much like bedrock. It's more like an active volcano: erupting or likely to erupt. Major reforms have created new entities – Communities and Regions - that allowed for more and more regional autonomy. And famously, of course, the pressure for devolution of power is based on language politics.
Before this election we had had a bumpy ride. The government under Prime Minister Yves Leterme seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis before he finally resigned. Belgians of all stripes appeared to be united in their readiness for a new leader. One who didn't sing the French national anthem in front of TV cameras when asked to sing the French version of the Belgian national anthem? For example.
Things seemed to take a turn for the better with the arrival of his replacement, Herman Van Rompuy. The sigh of relief that rustled through the nation soon became a different kind of sigh when he accepted the newly created job of President of the European Council. He'd been PM for less than a year. Which is not a lot of time in which to achieve anything much. Or even just anything, really.
So where were we? And where are we now? With a growing air of fatalism the Belgian electorate is preparing itself for what seems inevitable. No, not splitting the country in half (But what do we do with Brussels?!). Let's not get ahead of ourselves. What may come next are fresh elections.
Although perhaps 'fresh' is the wrong word. A better one would be stale, or even stinky. It takes very little imagination to predict that sending people back to the voting booths as a means to solve a problem created by the biggest vacuum of political leadership north of Somalia will result in further polarisation of the votes. “You didn't hear us the first time? Well, EAT THIS.” So to speak.
The fault lines have been there since the beginning. In this peaceful Western democracy it's hard to tell whether these fractures are just a part of the landscape, giving us all something to talk about, or whether they will ultimately rip the country apart.
Yong Chui Hsia is the presenter of Brussels International on tvbrussel.
The programme goes out on Sunday evening and is repeated for twenty-four hours.
She is Belgian-Australian.
Introducing Country Facts in Belgium
The History of Belgium: Part one
European Union web resources