Belgium: What Next After Your Shame March?

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Some 34,000 young and not so young, marched for hours through the streets of Brussels on Sunday 23 January 2011, carrying slogans putting to shame the political class for not having formed a government.The streets of the city centre were filled with flags and funny hats, making for nice photos that rebounded around the planet, surprising most people.

What, the jolly, beer-drinking Belgians, ever so peace-loving, are getting angry at their government, or rather, lack of it? The day before, a popular Belgian actor had vowed he wouldn't shave until a government was formed, and everybody thought that was "une bonne blague belge", a good Belgian joke: More and more beards in the street until finally politicians would deign to come together and form a government. Ha, et vive la barbe! Meantime, financial market are getting increasingly nervous, gossip about Belgium's sovereign debt is on the rise, and everyone wonders what will happen to Brussels, the seat of the European Union Commission and of Nato.

The Sunday Shame March may have been a turning point for Belgium, the one European country that is enmeshed in a political mess that has no comparison anywhere else in Western Europe. Seven months without a government - since the 13 June 2010 elections.  Something of a record, putting Belgium right behind Iraq in terms of the numbers of days it takes to form a government!

Why? In this case, I was baffled.

So far I haven't blogged about Belgium although I was born in Brussels and I still carry a Belgian passport - many of my friends have been asking me to do so, but I've always shied away from the subject. That may come as a surprise to most of you, since I happily blog away about all sorts of issues without apparently worrying too much about the amount of authority I may be able to command. But I always trust my instinct and try to make (hopefully) intelligent analyses of the situation before setting out to write about it.

So I did my research. Like everybody, I roughly knew what the country's division was about (I'd heard my father - a Belgian diplomat - countless times, as he explained it around to family and friends). It has its historical roots in 1830 when Belgium was created. Why was it created as a unified country in the first place? Good question. Because, culturally and language-wise, it is obvious that the Flemish part should have gone to the Netherlands, and the French part (Wallonia) to France, and the third little bit up in the north-east corner, to a German state. If that didn't happen, it is partly Talleyrand's doing: he embarked on a particularly subtle and complex negotiation with the then European powers when he was Ambassador of France in London. And he was very proud of himself when the result was the birth of Belgium, conceived as an "état-tampon" or buffer state to protect France from northern invasions (of course, we all know how well that worked out later...).

So what brought Belgium together and held it together up to our time? Two forces: the monarchy and religion. Yes, Belgians are very attached to their King and they are (mostly) Catholic, while their neighbours to the north are Protestants. Now both forces are in decline, especially the Catholic Church since its pedophilia scandals. The King apparently is still doing okay and trying his best to bring about a government.

When did things go really wrong? A long time ago, as the balance of economic power slowly switched through the 20th century, from French-speaking Wallonia, once the star region, with a flourishing industry based on coal-mining to Flanders. Once a backward, agricultural area, Flanders became increasingly important, with a rising population and a growing international port: Antwerp. With the closing of the coal mines in the 1950s, the power balance reversed, and Flanders became the star region, with more people, 6 million to Wallonia's four.

When did things start to sour up real bad? I'm  not sure, but as far as I can make out, it must have begun back in the 1960s. I'll never forget my father's surprise, and hurt feeling, when he - who was at the time an experienced diplomat in his fifties, posted at the United Nations in New York - was asked by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to demonstrate his proficiency in Flemish by... taking a test in Flemish! Which he passed, of course. From the 1960s onwards, the country proceeded on its road to division, with three official languages (French, Flemish and German), regional administrations and creation of Brussels as an autonomous region - a perennial source of irritation since Brussels also happens to be the historical capital of Flanders (on the map it's the blue patch: as you can see, it's within the borders of Flanders).

You'd think that in our day and age, a Federal solution shouldn't be so hard to find. After all, this is a peaceful area, World War II was over 65 years ago. What's the problem?

Bottomline, it's a money problem. As always, people will fight to the death when money is the bone of contention. Compared to booming Flanders, Wallonia is a poor area in need of remedial social security and employment measures - they are costly and can only be financed if tax revenues are transfered from Flanders, something that drives the Flemish mad. Some of the anger is understandable: after all, when Wallonia was rich, Flanders was  the butt of endless, tasteless jokes, none of which helped civil conviviality. Now the balance is leaning the other way, and the Flemish mean to get back at the Walloons. The 13 June 2010 elections reinforced the Flemish desire for independance, particularly the success of its N-VA, the New Flemish Alliance party, with 1.2 million followers. The N-VA has dragged along the old Flemish Christian Democratic party and some others, so that now you've got about 45% of the Flemish electorate who'd like to see Flanders secede from Belgium.

That, of course, also means that you have a majority (55%) who don't. Belgium still means one country to most Belgians. And that was what the Shame March of this past Sunday was supposed to mean. Started by five "dudes" (read: French-speaking and Flemish students) on Facebook, calling for the Sunday march, it's not a political movement. Just a web generation manifestation - joined in by quite a few older people, judging from the photos.

To try to understand more about this march and where it might eventually lead - because remarkably enough, journalists around the world, while reporting on the Shame March all shied away from analysis - I had to turn directly (oh, the wonders of Internet!) to the Belgian press: La Libre Belgique, Le Soir and a series of Flemish papers. It was interesting to see how differently commentators reacted: in the French-speaking press with favour, while the Flemish were more contained, agreeing that the political class should show more interest in moving negotiations forward but wondering where it might all lead, actually implying it was leading nowhere(!).

Okay, the Flemish are looking at this street protest with a jaundiced eye. A quick survey commissioned by Le Soir, reported (from just walking around the participants in the march - some 1000 were included in the sample) that only 21 percent came from Flanders, 35 percent from Wallonia and the rest (44%) from Brussels. Is 21% so little, emerging as it did in a "spontaneous" protest? An N-VA spokesman immediately noted that "one should recognize these differences and give more autonomy to Federal entities".

So the answer on the Flemish side is always the same: more autonomy. In short, what we have here is an extraordinary breakdown in communications. Why?

Roaming around the Belgian blogosphere and Internet, I believe I've finally come across the reason. Simple: Belgium, unlike other democracries around the world, has DIFFERENT parties in each region. Yes, you read this right: for instance, the Christian Democrats in Belgium are not a single party but two, one for the Flemish side, the other for the Walloon, and they don't speak to each other. They don't coordinate, they are two distinct parties in every way.

Amazing! It would be like having in the United States a Republican party that was only allowed to operate, say, in the South, and the Democrats in the North. Don't be surprised if that would result in another War of Secession - of course, that is exactly what is happening in Belgium (without gunshots, thank God!) And to make matters worse, the political shading of Belgium is very different: the Flemish are on the conservative and extreme right, while Wallonia has gone pinkish, mostly on the left.

When shall the two ever meet? In my view, it will take more than one Shame March to bring a modicum of common sense to the Belgian political class...Or the creation of a single "unity" party to cover the whole of Belgium, but that doesn't appear to be in the works.
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