Belgian Crisis: Into The Fridge

Flemish and French-speaking Belgians alike are celebrating a half victory and bemoaning a half defeat today, as the never-ending issue of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency (BHV) has strewn salt into the country’s wounds once again.

The Flemings are happy to have been able to schedule the issue for a parliamentary vote, something that has been four decades in the making. The French-speakers, on the other hand, have blocked the issue from moving forward for 120 days, by having the French-speaking community’s bodo Cocof invoking the “emergency brake” clause that enables either side of the divided country to put controversial decisions “in the fridge”, as Flemish media describes it, for a cooling-off period of four months, should one side feel trampled by the other.

Apparently, this is only the second time that this Belgian peculiarity has evenr been used – the first was only some months ago, over the same issue by the way.

The date July 15 has previously been mentioned as a deadline to resolve the issue, but with divisions as deep as ever before, few believe that this will be accomplished.

As a foreigner, I frankly can’t understand why it is so aggressively difficult to reach an agreement and instead take on more burning issues, such as improving welfare, housing, roads, reforming taxes, improving public sector efficiency, fighting against nepotism and corruption, and last but not least: shoving the entire bureaucracy surrounding starting a company into the waste-paper basket, and replacing it with a quick and easy way to enable entrepreneurs and people with more good ideas than pen-pushing skills to start companies and thus help to do something about unemployment.

But that’s just me.

Belgian Crisis: Bet On The Split

While the Belgian government is today wriggling over the constituency issue of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) which once again might throw the country into a government-less limbo and renewd chaos, you can play an online dead pool game to predict when Belgium will cease to exist. The prize: your weight in Belgian French Fries.

“The symptoms are pointing towards a terminal disease”, unknown pranksters write as they invite you to bet on when Belgium will die. You can place your bet by clicking here: http://www.wanneergaatbelgiedood.be/

The organisers promise to give the winning prediction his/her weight in frites, the Belgian invention that has travelled the world under the name of French fries; yet another example of how this country has failed to gain a profile of its own. (The world apart from the UK, that is, where Belgian French fries are called ‘chips’ and chips are called ‘crisps’, because we love to confuse things, but let’s not get technical now).

Predictions range (as of yet) from today’s date, May 8, to July 1, 2013. “Flanders first!! then the frites…!” writes Mathias, who put that date down, while “Better late than never” is the verdict from Eric de Bel, who anticipates the split at September 17 this year.

I refrain from casting a vote, being an impartial journalist.

Meanwhile, the Belgian government is amking another attempt at forcing a vote in Parliament over the BHV issue. The government is at a 50-50 per cent chance/risk of having to resign shold things not go their way, which would mean that the executive body that was so painfully forged dduring nine months of anguish will have stayed in power for only two months. Since that govermnent almost never happened, and was the end of the road or a lengthy consitutional crisis, the resulting problems may prove too difficult to overcome, and early predictions on the demise of the Belgian state may therefore prove correct after all.

Stranger things have happened.

Belgian Crisis: Deadlock Holiday

Thought the Belgian Crisis was averted with the inauguration of a new government? Think again. The trickiest question of them all yesterday forced a scheduled Parliament session today to be cancelled, to the tune of cries of foul.

Even though the largest parties eventually managed to form a government, some nine months after last year’s elections, the country remains fundamentally divided over the issue over the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency. Not much to squabble about, British readers may wonder, as constituency borders in Britain are redrawn all the time. But in a country so delicately balancing on a knife’s edge between different and diverse interests, the question of how to draw the borders of a simple constituency has become a major issue as a focal point for the tensions that still hold the country in deadlock.

In short, the Flemings want the constituency split, and the French-speakers do not. Flemings argue that its composition gives the Francophones a disproportionate say, which the Francophones unsurprisingly refutes. The Flemings, though, have a verdict from Belgium’s Constitution Court in their favour, saying that the constituency does discriminate against them and must be split. The Francophones continue to obstruct this verdict to this day, which is why it has not been implemented yet. But the same court has said that no new elections can be held until the split is carried out. Ergo: Deadlock.

The new government, a fragile alliance between members who fought against each other during the height of the crisis, has the unenviable task to resolve all this.

The issue was to be debated in the Belgian Parliament’s equivalent of the House of Commons/House of Representatives – the Chamber – on Wednesday (30th April). But that debate has been cancelled since the Speakers of the house cannot agree on how to hold it. Meanwhile, the government says it has no new agreement on the issue to put forward, according to the Belgian magazine Knack.

Of course, the opposition is crying foul, saying that “Parliament is virtually abolished”. “An absolute low point”, raves the Flemish Socialist Party leader Peter Vanvelthoven, and the far-right if not right-wing extremist and separatist Flemish Vlaams Belang is equally outraged.

They will try again next week, after the extended weekend due to the May 1 holiday tomorrow and the extra day off that most businesses are taking during Friday. It remains to see whether the speakers have agreed enough by then to even have the issue discussed – but don’t put your money on it.

Where Do We BEGIN?

At last, at last, at last! The EU and the Cty of Brussels has decided to give the EU quarters east of the Brussels city centre a facelift, cleaning up the area around, among others, the Berlaymonster (the EU Commission’smain building) and Justus Lipsius (the stone sarcophagus where ministers meet).

For this purpose, they have announced a competition, open for anyone with bright idea on how to liven up this stone desert, choking on the exhaust from the thousands of cars on the two eight-lane highways that plough through the district.

I wrote about this when the idea was presented in September, but here are a few new modest proposals from yours sincerely:

  • Get rid of the traffic.
  • Continue to pull down the old ugly shoeboxes for offices and build something nice instead.
  • Paint the old facades in something else than dirt-grey.
  • Get rid of some of the slum-like buildings from ages past that still litter the district.
  • Shut the lights off along Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat if you are serious about cutting CO2 emissions and setting an example in that work.

and finally…

  • Shock yourselves dramatically, and put in one or two GREEN spaces there for a change

This last item is probably the most important. The Belgian idea of “wildlife” is to plant some grass in a flower pot and put it out on the pavement (sidewalk), but so as not to inflict too much of a wilderness survival trip feeling, there must be 6-7 pubs and ample car parking immediately surrounding it. Consequently, the only green you see downtown are the pharmacies’ signs, and especially this time of the year, you feel dying from chlorophyll deficit. There have been a few new open spaces created when they refurbished the old Berlaymonster, but these have been carefully paved over so as not to offer any unnecessary vegetation, and are in either case wind holes that one quickly hurries across in search for shelter.

But then again, everybody knows that you have to be stark raving mad to become a city planner. So please… take the chance to draw something creative.

I Am The Easter Bunny

I thought our Christmas ordeal was a challenging experience in cross-cultural communication, trying to explain to our little children the four incarnations of Santa Claus. Little did I know that I would have to become the Easter Bunny at 7 am on Easter Sunday.

Let’s recap. Our children are of Anglo-Swedish origin, and we live in Belgium. Three cultures to merge already, the latter of which we are still largely ignorant of in spite of a total of six years in this country. Our children, however, spending most of their awake hours in a Flemish school, are not.

I should have remembered last year, when we were hunting little Easter eggs all around our back yard. Another mnemonic came a few days ago in the shape of our dear little old lady neighbour downstairs, a Flemish woman with no children of her own and thus our kids’ surrogate Granny. She called me to her and snuck a large bag of little Easter eggs and candy of the same kind, with the obvious intent of helping us to repeat the act this year.

The thing is, in this part of the world, little children awake on Easter morning (I’ve never been able to figure out exactly which day it’s supposed to be) to find their gardens full of hidden chocolate eggs that have to be found. In France, these eggs are said to be spread all over the world from the Vatican’s church bells; in Belgium, for some reason I have yet to unveil, they are all laid by the Easter Bunny.

Problematically enough, however, he is not the only one who does so. Any visit to any commercial outlet of any kind this time of the year reveals that Easter Bunnies must have reproduced like, well, rabbits, because you are met with row after row, aisle after aisle, of one set of Easter eggs and candy more sugar-stuffed and unhealthy than another.

Consequently, we thought ourselves to be good parents to but the kids one large, candy-stuffed Easter egg each on Good Friday, to prevent any possible pining. But when they came home from school, they had already had a visit from the candy-dropping Bunny in their classrooms, and were thus already experiencing blood sugar levels set to saturated and rising. So we thought it good to ration the candy intake, and leave the garden chocolate hunt for Easter Day in the morning. Eager inquiries from the Four-year-old and the Six-year-old, anticipating the hunt, were met with our purportedly initiated explanations that “it’s too early yet, wait for Easter Sunday”.

Talk about making a rod for your own back.

The day before – nay, the night before – I had reason to attend to a lot of important business that kept me up late, late, late into the wee hours. Or early. Going to bed, I calculated when I would have to get up again in order to get us ready for going to Church, and decided that I could at least sleep until 8.30. Wow, almost five hours’ sleep.

How wrong I was. Ten to seven, our two little tots came bouncing into our bed – which only so happens to be the best point for getting a view of our garden – excitedly wanting to see how full of sweets the garden was. You should have seen the look on their faces when all they saw was frozen grass. Disappointment and grief doesn’t even begin to convey it.

Drowsily trying to return to the land of the living, two thoughts fought for attention from the four of my brain cells that had switched on so far

1)      Are these Belgian kiddies my children?

2)      How in the name of Pete do I get away with this?

Luckily enough, necessity is the mother of invention. I sent the kids back to bed with some half-baked explanation that it was so early that the Bunny hadn’t even made it there yet, trying to order them to sleep a little more. That is usually impossible. When the sun is shining at full floodlight strength and they are expecting one of the year’s major events, it’s as easy as drilling a mine shaft with a boiled carrot.

I then remembered that thankfully, there is a corner of our garden that you can’t see from anywhere in the house, as it is concealed behind a large shed.

So I put on a suitably troubled face (which was the one thing this morning that took the least effort), went to my grim-faced little dear ones laying in their beds and told them that I was going outside to take a closer look, just in case.

The thermometer said –0.4 C.

Well, then at least I could wear a winter jacket large enough to conceal the sack of candy from the Secret Hiding Place. Out I went, after first ripping open the little bags that these eggs come in, so as to be able to act quickly once out there.

I felt like someone out of a Biblical parable as I stood there in the garden, spreading little candy eggs like a sowerman. There must be a sermon illustration in all this. Hope the neighbours weren’t watching, but then again, they probably would have nodded in sympathy.

Next, stage two of the Deception: I took a deep breath, rushed inside, and dashed into my kids’ bedroom feigning excitement.

“I found them! I found them! They were in the corner! Come and have a look!”

Grumpily and drowsily, the kids reluctantly arose to come and see. The Six-year-old looked in some disbelief, wondering what those empty bags accidentally sticking out from Daddy’s pocket were all about. My and my wife’s acting skills were stretched to their limits as we boiled up yet another lie about them being some old trash that I was about to throw away.

I eventually managed to pour my children into suitably warm clothes, and get them outside, where they would only be able to see the candy from right behind the shed. You guessed it: the day was saved.

However, as I stood there repeating that the Easter Bunny must have been in a great hurry, why he left all the eggs in one corner of the garden – all in the name of making the illusion complete – I did wonder how I was going to reconcile the fact that I had begun this year’s largest Christian feast day by trying to systematically violate the Ninth Commandment (or Eighth, if you’re a Catholic or a Lutheran).

Better get to Church, I suppose. My alarm clock just went off 15 minutes ago.

 

 

Belgian Crisis: A Government Against All Odds

Against all odds, Belgium today gets its new government, under the leadership of Fleming Yves Lterme, nine months after the general election was held. It took one final 21-hour negotiation session to put things in place, as usual, but now there is a deal that will be presented in Parliament today.

Not only is it against all odds that Mr Leterme actually was able to put together a government: domestic and internaitonal press alike are seriously sceptical of its ability to survive. Five parties are enough to make any government shaky, already without adding the extra dimension in Belgium of ethno-lingual conflicts on top of the political-ideological ones. And Mr Leterme will try to keep the government together that he basicaly wasn’t able to forge on his own. Indeed, according to recent polls, not only 90 per cent of the Walloons but also more 55 per cent of the Flemings do not trust him as Premier.

Against all odds is also the fact that “Madame Non”, Joëlle Milquet who played a large part in derailing the attempts to form a government last year by stubbornly letting go of Walloon opposition to the constitutional reform the Flemings in general and Mr Leterme’s CD&V party in particular demand, will take place in the same government. She will be minister of Labour and Equal Opportunities; not exactly a top post in the government, but she’s still there. (Edit: She will have the status as vice Premier, together with all the other party leaders in the coalition as well as one more member from CD&V).
We shall see if the two are capable of cohabiting.

Apart from the Christian Democrat parties CD&V and Ms Milquet’s cdH, the new government also consists of Flemish and Francophone liberal parties Open VLD and MR, and the Francophone socialists PS.

Belgian Crisis: Soon It’ll Start All Over Again

Belgium’s interim Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, has announced that he will hand over power to the controversial Flemish politician Yves Leterme on March 20.

That is three days early, but Mr Verhofstadt – who lost the election last year – believes that he has fulfilled his obligations to take the country out of the immediate rut by then.

However, today, just one full month before the handover, it is still unclear exactly which parties will be part of the new government, let alone which ministers it will consist of. Mr Leterme’s primary coalition partner, Francophone Liberal Didier Reynders, is out shopping around among the various political groupings as we speak, but there is not yet any firm commitment of whatsoever among any number of parties that could form a majority in Parliament.

In other words… here we go again.

I’ve Got A Flat

In British English, the above headline means “I have an apartment”. In American English, it means “I have a flat tire”. Well, you’re right on both.

I don’t know what it is. But are car tyres generally of worse quality today, or have we completely gone mad when it comes to chucking debris all around us? For the first 15 years or so of holding a driver’s license, I only had a flat tyre three times. Two were on ancient tyres that surprised me by holding out for as long as they did. And oh yes, there was one other that never blew, but where the cord had split and would have blown up on me any moment. But apart from that, nothing.

Since moving to Belgium in 2004, I have now had four flat tyres. But my boss, who lives in the West of Sweden, seems to have had the same experiences lately, with tyres going like balloons on a kiddies’ birthday party.

In at least two of my cases, nails have been involved. (And no, they did NOT come from my garage floor.) On one of the latest, we discovered at least three or four nails when the tyre was removed from the rim. So what’s going on here?

Either we have a fierce and foul competitor, who is conspiring against us at Foodwire and blowing our tyres at night. Or the tyre industry has decided that we all change tyres too seldom, and have collectively impaired their quality accordingly. (Any anti-cartel authority out there reading this?)

Or we have just all become careless when it comes to littering.

Oh bother.

7-Eleven

My boss just wrote on his blog that a 7-Eleven is coming to the small Swedish town where he lives.

I want a 7-Eleven here in Brussels, too. But there isn’t one in the whole country.

As I’ve probably mentioned, shop hours are quite surprising in what aspires to be the capital of Europe. Everything is closed on Sundays, holidays, and long weekends, with only a few very notable exceptions. If you’ve forgotten to do your shopping, you could easily end up in a sort of wildlife survival experience in your apartment.

And don’t even think about dashing into a shop that happens to be open at the very last minute before closing time. A shop closing at, say, 7pm means that its staff reserves the fight to leave at 7pm. At our local supermarket, they post armed guards (no joking) at the doors about fifteen minutes before closing, to make sure that no last-minute shoppers will sneak in and force the staff to work a few moments’ overtime. Arguing with the guards that opening hours mean opening hours is no idea. I’ve tried.

7-Elevens and their like do not exist. There are a few “night shops”, though, which you even might find aftere some countless hours of driving around, which may be alright if all you need is a vat of over-sugared soft drink or cigarettes, but that’s it.

Quite frankly, I fail to understand the logic. Supermarkets are open all day, usually from 9am, when everybody is at work and have no time to go shopping. Being one of the notable exceptions to confirm the rule, I’ve often snuck in at our local supermarket around then after taking the kids to school, to get one or two things for breakfast or so. There are a few pensioners, one or two other people, and that’s it, staff sitting idly at the tills. Whereas when people do have time to go shopping, in the evenings and during the weekends, the shops are closed.

Supersize Tuesday

As most of you are aware of, today is the (in)famous Super Tuesday in the US, when a large number of states hold their primaries and when it could be de facto decided whch two candidates will stand against each other at the November election.

However, it also happens to be this year’s Mardi Gras, or Fettisdagen, or Shrove Tuesday, when you are either supposed to put on enough fat (hence the “Fat Tuesday” of the two former) or seek abolition for your sins (hence “Shrove Tuesday” for the latter) before Lent begins tomorrow, starting with Ash Wednesday when I suppose you are supposed to don sackcloth and ashes in fasting and repentance.

Remembering my previous blog post, there is probably quite a bit of repentance necessary for most of us Westerners; seeking absolution for our oppression of the Third World would be a very appropriate thing to do. But today is the Fat Tuesday, when we will be indulging in semlor.

Our British heritage should really prompt us to fatten ourselves with pancakes today, but we do that so often otherwise that there’s no point in that. (And I just read that it is now considered too dangerous to arrange pancake races anyway, in these days of the nanny state. Maybe by next year pancakes will have been outlawed too?)

But semlor is a peculiar offshoot of he Swedish cuisine which is gulped down in hedonistic quantities in that country, and revered by expatriates in foreign lands as well. It is simply a wheat bun, filled with marzipan, the top cut off to form a lid under which generous amounts of whipped cream are squirted, and dusted with powdered sugar. It was traditionally served immersed in hot milk as well, but that seems to have waned over the years.

You can buy them everywhere in Sweden this time of the year, but in our case, we have to bake our own. Which brings us to the interesting hunt for marzipan in Brussels in February.

Last year, I didn’t think much of that as any problem. I remembered having seen huge stacks of marzipan blocks at our local Ikea, and just assumed that it would be available all year rund. We invited some Swedish friends, most of them in their first year here and in need of some consolation to get through this day of tradition, and I set out to get the ingredients at the last minute as always.

However, by the time I got around to it, the marzipan was all gone, being a seasonal thing for Christmas only. It was then I re-discovered how difficult it is to bake in Belgium.

I have come across that before. I’m used to baking my own birthday cakes and the like, but I have discovered that it is virtually impossible here in Belgium. Ingredients are notoriously hard to find, and cost a fortune of you do. Ready-made cakes, however, are reasonably priced, so we have got used to the plastic taste over the years and begun buying instead of baking. But of course, you can’t buy semlor.

It seemed that marzipan was not a commodity made available to the general public at all, once I started looking for it in the supermarkets. Which is very surprising because most of the gourmet chocolate houses, which Belgium is known for, display a wide variety or artisanal marzipan goodies as well. (Do the candy makers have secret contracts? Clandestine deliveries late at night?)

And at Christmas, there are no limits to marzipan-based sweets being sold, including a very popular one that is supposed to depict the baby Jesus made from pink marzipan.

I’ve always thought it to be seriously blasphemous to chew up a pink candy baby Jesus, and I was hoping not to have to resort to using a leftover stock of such items, but with the evening arriving and the guests drawing close or the other way, desperation was at a peak and rising.

Finally, I did find some other leftover Christmas candy and the problem was solved. This year, I have stocked up on marzipan from Ikea… and forgotten to invite any guests.

Oh bother.

Swimming Pool Monster

One of the really great things about Belgian schools is that they teach the children to swim, with weekly swimming lessons from age six.

Our six-year-old is soon capable of swimming without support pads, I annouce proudly. But it has now occurred to him that it is possible to slip under the surface and drown, so, this morning, he was a bit afraid of today’s trip to the swimming pool.

We reassured him that there are guards trained to throw themselves into the water and help if anything bad happens and so on – and then his four-year-old brother decided he wanted to join in on the comforting as well, with the following helpful comment:

“Don’t be afraid, its just the sea monster”.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Growing up in an Anglo-Swedish family living in Belgium at least has one advantage that my children will eventually discover: You get Christmas presents over and over again. The only problem is that you don’t quite know from whom.

The Belgian tradition is for children to get their presents from Sinterklaas/St. Nicholas on December 6, and since the Sint, as he is commonly known, frequents the schools around that date, there is no way for us to try to ignore that tradition. (And it would be pretty harsh for the kids to come to school on that day and be asked by their friends “so what did you get from the Sint, then?”) So, already on December 5, our four- and six-year-olds put out a shoe each with carrots in them – for Sint’s horse – and awoke the morning after to find that the Sint had been there to put presents there in return.

Then, the Swedish Christmas starts officially on Christmas Eve, which is the day every Swedish child gets their presents – in fact, that is the main day of Christmas in Sweden. As we have that tradition firmly engraved in us, that is of course when we will have the next Christmas present flurry. More gifts.

The day after, Christmas Day, is traditionally the day when British children get presents in their stockings. Our kids have thus already put their stockings up, so it will be difficult to avoid even more presents then.

Well, if that sounds complicated, we haven’t got to the whole Santa business yet.

The Belgian Santa – the Sint – is not a merry figure from the North Pole; he is a skinny bishop arriving in a boat from Spain. The fact that he lives in sunny Spain rather than the freezing North isn’t so much the result of any modern-day timeshare condo programme, but rather a remnant from the years when Belgium was ruled by Spain and everything came from there. He is accomplished by Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), a jester-looking chap dressed in medieval clothing who is usually depicted as a blackface minstrel… a seriously politicaly incorrect caricature of an African man, probably in some way stemming from Moorish influences in Spain. He is the one who actually administrates the gift distribution; now there’s another interesting ground for debate over who’s the servant and who’s the master, by the way, but that’s beside the point.

However, the Swedish Santa – Jultomten – is a reformed and overgrown gnome, who lives alternatively at the North Pole or – more often – in Rovaniemi in Finland (although there have been some attempts to relocate him to Mora, Sweden). Not only does this bearded and obese character appear on Christmas Eve: he usually turns up in person, handing out Christmas presents from his sack, usually at the very moment when Dad has popped out to buy the newspaper. Jultomten has nothing in common with the Sint at all, except for being clad in red and handing out presents.

Then, the increasingly americanised version occuring in English-speaking countries, Santa Claus, of course lives at the North Pole, but sneaks down the chimney at night between Dec. 24 and Dec. 25 while the children are sleeping. to fill their stockings.

You’d think that our biggest problem is that we don’t have a chimney, but it gets worse still.

Putting all these things together means that we have to try to explain to our kids why this figure first appears in their school in full visibility, then sneaks in at home here at night, then changes clothes completely, gives Zwarte Piet a vacation in the middle of their busiest season, puts on 30-40 kilos in 18 days and relocates to the far North before turning up here again in full visibility, only to sneak in back here again the very night after to pop a few extra gifts down the kid’s socks that he could just as well have given to them the evening before.

The other day, we went to the local British store, where we buy all things English. There, the children had the chance of meeting Father Christmas, the fourth incarnation of this seasonal fiction, who is the English version of Santa (but ethnologically not entirely Santa Claus either).

“Is Zwarte Piet with him?” the Four-year-old asked expectantly.

Help.

Belgian Crisis: A Government For Christmas (Gone By Easter)

Belgium will finally ge a new government tomorrow, almost 200 days efter the general election. But it won’t last beyond Easter – actually.

The solution to the stalemate has been to form an “emergency government” dealing with the most urgent things, such as working out a new state budget. This caretaker government will be voted on on Christmas Eve, and will be led by present Premier Guy Verhofstadt, and comprise his Flemish liberal party and its Francophone sister party, the Flemish and Francophone Christian Democrats, and the Francophone Socialists.

The Francophone Christian Democrats – led by Joëlle Milquet, dubbed “Madame Non” for her repeated refusals of all previous governmental constructions, almost opted out of the interim government. That would have meant that the Flemish Christian Democrats would have governed together with its ideological opponent, the Socialists, while not together with its ideological twin party on the other side of the language frontier. In other words, that would have once again proven that in Belgian politics, language is far more important than ideology.

By Easter, the helm is to be handed over to Yves Leterme, the leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats, who after all did come out as the election’s biggest winners. But he has repeatedly failed to unite enough parties on both sides of the language frontier to achieve a government, and the premiership he is going to take over is the doing of Mr Verhofstadt. Thus, he will be governing on someone else’s mandate.

It remains to be seen how that will work.

Sunny Portugal

Portugal is trying to put on a charm offensive after being slammed by numbers for insisting on flying all the EU leaders – and Gordon Brown – to Lisbon yesterday just to put their names on a document.

Or so it seems, at least. The Portuguese Presidency is trying to woo journalists here at the EU Smmit’s Press Centre, where I am writing this, by handing out Christmas presents. Everyone gets a windproof jacket with the legend “eu2007.pt” in large letters across the back, unusually enough, together with a book about Portuguese points of interest. Supposedly intended to make us Brussels-based reportes sit around in the standard Belgian winter weather of fog, dark, and ice water pouring from a grey, grey sky, and dream about an Algarve getaway, no doubt.

Quite unusual for a gift, actually. Normally, the Presidencies at most hand out straps that you are supposed to hang your press badge on,  or something of the same 1/magnitude.

Moreover, this afternoon, they have promised to “close with a bang”, as a text message described it some moments ago.

“The Pres. invites you for a Portuguese Xmas cake and a sparkling frong 14h30 at the press centre/main hall”, the message read.

As far as the jackets are concerned, you could always suspect that they just had an extra stockpile lying around that they couldn’t get rid of before ending their presidency. If the same goes for the cake remains to be seen in a few moments – I shall be back with a report.

However, to prove that I have not been bought by this bribery attempt, let me direct you to this wonderful butchery of the Lisbon signing madness, penned by Times journalist Ben Macintyre, who pretty much saw the same thing as the rest of us watching the event online but who describes it far better than anyone else:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article3048452.ece

Happy reading, it’s well worth the extra moments.

Belgian Crisis: Recycling Old Prime Ministers

Belgium’s current Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, has been asked by king Albert II to try to form a new government, after all else have failed – and in spite of being considered to have lost the general election in June.

The first information we have is that he has called upon the French-speaking Socialist party for talks; a move which will further go against the trend in the general election, and likely complicate attempts to get the centre-right parties on board even further. But such is the current political situation in Belgium, that the language-group divides are far more important than the political ideologies – and the outcome of the election  is becoming less and less important by the day as the pliticians struggle to solve the situation.

Belgian Crisis Has Now Turned Into Chaos

Yves Leterme has given up attempts to form a government and resigned from his task yesterday (Saturday). 175 days after the election, the country is thus not only without a government, but back to square one – or even furtherback a few steps from there.

Mr Leterme could not unite the two Flemish and the two French-speaking parties in his proposed coalition , which remain as divided over liguistinc lines as they ever were before talks started. In the end, it was French-speaking Christian Democrat Joëlle Milquet who rejected Mr Leterme’s final offer, again dubbing her “Madame Non” as a previous refusal from her to accept Mr Leterme’s offers thwarted his previous attempt to patch the government together, a few months ago.

Thus, the Flemings are blaming the French-speakers for throwing the process back into chaos, but the French-speakers’ standpoint is that the Flemings are to blame for holding on too stubbornly  to their demands for devoltion of federal powers into regional hands, which they fear will dry up the current federal funds that transfer money from the wealthier Flanders to the poorer French-speaking Wallonia, and eventually tempt the Flemings to break off and form their own country.

Everybody is now looking to the king, Albert II, for a solution, as the next step is formally for him to take. The odds are in favour of Didier Reynders, the leader of the French-speaking MR party and currently Minister of Finance, as the next person to try to form a government. However, the question is what he will form a government out of.

The general sentiment is that the centre-right coalition proposed so far, consisting of Mr Leterme’s CD&V, Ms Milquet’s CDH, Mr Reynders’ MR and the Flemish-nationalist N-VA, is dead. But there is little to replace it with.

Omitting ‘Madame Non’ and CDH would end up four seats short of a majority in Parliament for the remaining three partis, so they need another coalition partner. They have been in favour of taking in the French-speaking and Flemish speaking Green parties (as with most other partes, there are two parallel entities, one for each language group), but both Ecolo and Groen, as they are named, have already refused to help the CD&V-MR-N-VA lot.

The other main alternative would be to cross the left-right divide and bring in the Socialists, but that would neglect the outcome of the general election, which seemed to speak in favour of a swing to the right, and the CD&V-MR-N-VA group has so far rejected such ideas.

And even if Mr Reynders does manage to patch up a coalition, he will not get the CD&V on board unless he lets Mr Leterme become Prime Minister, the CD&V have stated. A government without CD&V would be unthinkable as they are the largest party in Parliament and generally seen as the winners of the election. But having Mr Leterme as Premier seems equally unthinkable, as he has now proven his incapacity to negotiate a solution that all involved will follow, and adding to his already vast lack of popularity among French-speakers, such an inability would cast serious doubts over his capabiliy to lead the country through whatever hard times may or may not lie ahead.

In other words: the country needs leadership, Mr Leterme has proven he can’t provide it, but the largest party insists that he takes the job or they won’t join a government.

Try sorting that mess out.

File Sharing

Every morning as I drive my kids to school, the traffic jam reports on the radio take almost as long as the journey from our house to the school.

Now I should add that the school is only a few kilometres away, but still: a few minutes are an eternity in radio terms – trust me, I used to work for the radio and have had to do entire news bulletins covering all the latest world news in two minutes.

As if to intentionally add insult to injury, they have recently started adding the total amount of tailbacks, or “files” as they are known in Flemish. “There are 100 kilometres of ‘files’ today… there are 150 kilometres of ‘files’ in our country right now…”

I didn’t even know that you could find 150 kilometres of road in Belgium. Well, sort of. But I looked it up on Google Earth. You could line up the entire morning tailbacks almost anywhere in the country and find them reaching straight through the country – and back, in some cases. We’re talking ‘files’ of a kind which – if you could move them – could theoretically start in Holland and not end until well into France.

Talk about file sharing.

This morning, the sum of the tailbacks was 180 kilometres. Yesterday it was 185.

And on and on it goes. Listening to the chanting of the same points of reference every day makes you understand that something is seriously wrong. “Between Stroombeek and Wemmel, between Waterloo and Tervuren, at Groot-Bijgaarden…”

In fact, it would probably be easier to have the traffic report highlight the roads that are not congested, and just assume that all the others are.

Selling Belgium By The Euro

As those of you who read the comments on this blog have already noticed, the man who tried to sell Belgium on eBay has a new listing up: Get a Belgian citizenship for EUR 25.

“The perfect Christmas gift”, writes Gerrit Six, journalist and now also officially prankster, as he offers buyers the chance to enjoy, amongst otgher things, “speculoos, Belgian fries, tax evasion, hilarious elections” and “never winning the Eurovision Songcontest”, the latter sadly proving that he has already forgotten Sandra Kim, but that’s beside the point. Other benefits of course include “national debt (300 billion Euro)”, and, “for those who enrole before Christmas an extra bonus: THE WORLD RECORD RUINING THE COUNTRY WITHOUT GOVERNMENT”, he writes.

He could have added “the largest percentage of a country’s surface occupied by congested roads”, but I’ll elaborate on that in the next blog post instead.

Full link to Gerrit Six’s latest offer: http://cgi.benl.ebay.be/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=200178129569&ssPageName=ADME:L:LCA:BE:1123

A Response To The Economist

The Economist magazine usually provides good reading, but in their latest blog entry about the Belgian crisis, they’ve got it completely wrong.

In the entry http://www.economist.com/blogs/certainideasofeurope/2007/11/belgium_the_model_european.cfm , they argue that the Belgian crisis is not anything to worry about for the EU, since Belgium is only an analogy of the EU, but the EU is not the same thing as Belgium.

They’ve completely missed the whole idea. It is not merely a question of Belgium being an analogy for EU in some sort of symbolic way, as The Economist itself puts it: “because Belgium is a federal state merging different language communities, and hosts lots of EU institutions, it is a model EU in miniature”.

The problem is of a completely different kind. As I have elaborated on in my blog entry https://newtonline.wordpress.com/2007/11/09/belgian-crisis-why-you-should-be-worried/ , it is far, far more than a question of mere symbolism. The problems with Belgium are parallelled point-by-point in the European Union as an institution.

Belgium merged different language communities without asking the people, and the current crisis is in much a question of many of these people wanting a different deal than their ruling elite offered them. That’s your first clue, which The Economist fails to recognise.

The lack of public legitimacy, the lack of public support, the lack of public interest in the state/union on an everyday basis, the democratic deficit in the establishing of the nation/union, the tension between the net payers and the net receivers, the sentiment of groups being marginalised, the endless corruption… all of these are at the heart of the Belgian crisis and all of these lie at the heart of the current EU as well.

This is way beyond Belgium being a miserable souvenir in a EU tourist shop… it is an example of what all the above issues can and will lead to on a European level as well, if they are not dealt with properly. Brushing things off the way The Economist does will only speed up the advent of the problems.

Belgian Crisis: Waiting For White Smoke

“We’re still waiting for the white smoke”, one member of the Swedish delegation laconically remarked to me one late evening some time ago, as we were waiting for a meeting of the European Union’s Agriculture ministers to conclude. The same can be said about the current Belgian crisis right now, for we are all as much awaiting any sign that the conclave has reached a decision in its meetings behind firmly shut doors as those who gather outside the Vatican whenever it is time to elect a new Pope.

The difference is that right now, you could certainly speak about there being two parallel conclaves in Belgium; one currently lying fallow as it awaits the outcome of the other set up by the king. The latter will see its sovereign today, but there is little to indicate that it will have reached any progress. As has happened before, there have been signals that there might be a government in place before the turn of the year, but as I indicated, that is something we have heard before, and we have to see it to believe it.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks on, and it is tempting to start advocating a similar solution as when the Catholic world had been without a Pope for three years; then, the inhabitants of Viterbo, where the conclave was held, locked the cardinals in, served them nothing but bread and water, and took the roof away from over their heads. That resulted in the election of Gregory X in 1271, as well as the decision to keep the cardinals locked in during every papal conclave ever since.

But as for now, the only one locked in is me, for my kids have a day off from school today and my wife came down with the flu this morning, so I am trying to work while keeping things together here at the same time. Hopefully it will be a little different by tomorrow so I can go se what the Brussels meeting of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was all about.

Or at least find time to have a shower.

Classical Gas

This morning, we are bracing ourselves for an explosion in our nearest Flemish town, Halle, about ten kilometres down the road.

It’s not the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde issue that’s about to take a violent turn, I must add, but a huge gas leak combined with an equally huge water leak, a combination which is potentially explosive, we have been told. I do not doubt the truth in this after hearing Halle’s mayor being interviewed on the radio this morning; his voice was audibly trembling as he announced the emergency plans that had been launched.

Everybody is thinking of the 2004 gas explosion in Ghislenghien (try pronouncing that!), which isn’t all that far from here either, where 24 people died and 132 people were injured, including victims being burned on the parts of their bodies facing the town as they drove by on the motorway passing it with their windows open on what was a hot day already before the blast. I know the exact figures since another of this particular morning’s news stories in Belgium coincidentally happens to be about the ongoing trauma of those who witnessed that event, three and a half years afterwards.

(By the way, we have a gas heater which heats both our home and our hot water. We should have had it inspected long time ago. Oh, bother.)

The thing about both the Halle and the Ghislenghien incidents is that in both cases, the gas pipes leaked after being damaged by excavators. They are building a new apartment block down on the corner of our street… a task that includes the use of excavators.

Oh, bother.

35,000 People Want A Belgium (But What About The Remaining 9.96M?)

There are at least 35,000 people who still think it is a good idea to keep the nation of Belgium as an entity. This became clear on Sunday as they turned up for a large manifestation in Brussels in support of keeping the nation together, in he face of the current Belgian crisis which has threatened to split the country into two nations.

I caught a glimpse of the mood as I drove into town to have a look after Church on Sunday mogning. However, I had lingrered for quite a while after the service, talking with friends, with the result that I arrived just as the whole thing was over. But I did look around to get a general feel of things, and noticed that the feelings were surprisingly calm. Unity was the aim and unity was certainly the result of the event, because it seemed as those participating had been able to leave the squabbling aside and actually meet in a spirit of reconciliation.

There was no shouting, no visible hot-headedness, and the radio report played a clip of the national anthem La Brabançonne sung by the participants in all three of Belgium’s official languages.

By any standards, this is an encouraging sight indeed, because it does provide some hope that whatever the outcome of the current Belgian crisis might be, it will be reached in a peaceful way.

However, 35,000 is not a record for a public manifestation in Brussels. When the “white march” against the authorities’ incompetence in handling the infamous paedophile scandals took place in 1996, the number was 300,000. Thus, one cannot help but wonder what the remaining 9.96 million Belgians who did not take part in yesterday’s event think about the future of their coutry. Do they agree that it should stay united, are they in favour of a split, or do they simply not bother?

Judging from what people usually say when I ask them, the latter is probably the truest answer. Most people are fairly apathetic or indifferent to the ongoing squabbling, and one must remember that any shake-up of the country is percieved far less dramatic here than it would be in, say, the UK, since Belgium has existed for such a relatively short time and has been shifted back and forth between so many different rulers over the preceding centuries.

More interesting is the well-known phenomenon that politicians tend to be more radical in general than those who vote for them. This is true all over the political scale and has been observed by many political scientists, who note that e.g. socialist parties want far more state interference than their voters, centre-right parties want far more deregulaiton and private initiative than their voters, and so on.

Judging from the general mood, Belgium’s French-speaking and Flemish parties seem to be far more zealous to defend the percieved interests of their respective language groups than the people who actualy constitute these language groups, and may reach the point where their efforts to fight for their own may lead to their own abandoning them altogether.

It is always difficult to fight on behalf of other people… because you might discover that they do not want to be fought for.

Belgian Crisis: Tit For Tat

Belgium’s Francophone political parties are retaliating at the decision of their Flemish counterparts recently to overrule them on the issue of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency (BHV), which threw another spanner in the already stalling attempts to form a new Belgian government.

The French-speakers have vowed not to negotiate the BHV issue as long as the Flemish regional government refuses to endorse three mayors in Flemish-speaking councils, the election of whom was declared invalid by the Flemish authorities because French had been spoken in the preceding debates. The Flemish, in return, claim only to follow the local rules known to all in the communities, where language is such a sensible issue that officially Flemish-speaking communes are required by law only to speak Flemish on all public matters, including relations to the general public.

The appointment of the mayors of the communes of Linkebeek, Wezembeek-Oppem and Kraainem – all close to Brussels and along the border of the nation’s language divide – was effectively overruled by the minister responsible for such matters in the Flemish regional government. Yesterday, he reiterated his standpoint, only to immediately be accused of violating democracy, as the French-speakers point to the fact that the mayors were elected representatives of the people whose decision must be honoured.

The weekend is otherwise expected to be somewhat of a cooling off period, with a manifestation in support of a unified Belgium at one of the country’s biggest national monuments in Brussels on Sunday as the most notable event. However, as mentioned in previous blog posts, the king, Albert II, will expect some progress by next week on the crisis management, and it will be very interesting to see what will happen if no progress has been made by then.

How To Shop Without Money – Legally

Oh, this is rich, literally speaking. Gazet van Antwerpen today publishes the story about Norbert Verswijver, who managed to shop for EUR 48,511 – but only had to pay 60 cents. Legally.

The explanation is that he used a number of discount coupons serially. He brought a bag full of coupons to the Blokker supermarket, all promising 20 percent off this item or 15 percent off that. All fine and dandy, but nobody had thought about that they could be used in sequence.

Norbert Verswijver simply bought any item that had an offer of a percentage discount associated with it – and then pulled out another percentage discount coupon to get a discount on the discounted price he was supposed to pay. And so on, and so on, until the price was down at zero, or anywhere close to it.

Mr Verswijver claims to have read all the fine print and intends to take Blokker to court, if they decide to back off from their offers, as they are currently trying to decide what to do with the customer.

He has already pulled a similar stunt at another supermarket, Match, which offered a EUR 4 discount on deep frozen products to anyone buying four products. Match hadn’t thought about that this would also cover items costing less than a euro a piece, so Mr Verswijver gathered up all the pots of chervil he could find, four of which costing only about three euros, and managed to amass refunded cash to such an extent that he was able to walk away with EUR 6,000 worth of deep-frozen products paid with nothing but paper coupons and one five eurocent coin.

The whole story is found here (in Dutch).

Belgian Crisis: The King Gives Ultimatum

Belgium’s king Albert II has given two of the main parties involved in the current struggle to form a government one week to come up with a proposal that will include suggestions on how to crack the trickiest nut of them all, the queston of the federal versus regional relations.

Herman Van Rompuy (CD&V) and Armand De Decker (MR), who not only come from opposite sides of the language divide but also happen to be the Speakers of the Belgian Parliament’s Chamber of Representatives and Senate respectively, are thus asked to come up with something that almost 160 days of haggling has not. All formal negotiations will remain idle while awaiting the outcome of the two gentlemen’s discussions.

It is not clear, however, what the king will do if they fail.

They, in turn, have already stated that they want to set up a council of heavyweight politicians to solve the relational issues, which would be yet another way of burying the issue under a pile of procrastination: such a council would work for years, and perhaps take up to three governmental terms to reach any conclusions, it is reported today.

The question remains whether or not that will be a workable solution. A similar idea of rallying “wise men” around the same issues was rejected during the last few days by several of the parties involved, and given the heavy pressure from the Flemish politicians on a local level, it is difficult to see how they would be able to wait for so long for an outcome. More importantly, the question remains on how on Earth to hold the next general elections before the question of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency has been solved.

Mr De Decker believes that there will be a government in place before the end of the year, and the king remains equally optimistic. However, others are less convinced, and in either case, the quesiton is where all this will leave the once designated incumbent Prime Minister Yves Leterme, who is now literally watching from the sidelines how others are doing the job he was appointed to do.

It will be very difficult indeed for Mr Leterme to step up and take the reins of someone else’s negotiated agreement, especially since he appears not to be part of the Van Rompuy-De Decker round at all.

I certainly would not accept the top job on those terms.

Belgian Crisis: Door Slams On Elections

Belgium’s struggling attempts to form a new government lost yet another possible way out today as the new chairman of the country’s Constitution Court slammed the door on any plans to call a new election to break the stalemate.

The political parties in Belgium have been struggling since Election Day on June 10 to form a government that will have a majority in Parliament. However, talks have ran aground over a number of issues concerning the future balance of power between the federal and the regional authorities, brought to focus over the question what to do with the constituency which both includes the mainly French-speaking Brussels and Flemish-speaking towns including Halle and Vilvoorde, which the Flemings have voted to split against the will of their French-speaking counterparts.

The designated Premier-to-be Yves Leterme is increasingly appearing to have failed his mission, and parallel talks hosted by king Albert II are reported tonight as being deadlocked. One of the few options left would therefore be to call a new election that would perhaps shift the Parliament in such a way that a majority would emerge that could form a government.

But that option was slammed shut this afternoon by Marc Bossuyt, the new chairman of the Constitution Court, the same court which ordered the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency to be split three years ago on the grounds that it discriminated against the Flemish-speakers. The federal elections on June 10 were the last that could be held before the question of the “B-H-V” had to be resolved, Mr Bossuyt told VRT, and any elections after that without solving the issue would be unconstitutional.

“New legislation must be worked out that does away with this discrimination”, he told the VRT, though without suggesting any way to do so in practice.

This means that Belgium tonight is stuck dead over an issue which it would need a new election to resolve – but also that it can’t hold such an election unless it resolves that very issue first.

As this Catch 22 sinks in, it is time not only to count the days without a government, but also the days without any negotiations over the formation of a new government: official negotiations have now been shut down for six days. Meanwhile, the country appears to be heading steadily towards what would have been unthinkable a year ago: outright disintegration.

Belgian Crisis: All The King’s Men

Belgium’s king Albert II is muscling his way into the attempts to form a new government in the country, 156 days after the general election was held. While the usual process is for the king only to appoint one person to secure an alliance among parties strong enough to form a government that will have a majority in the new parliament (who usually also becomes Prime minister), and then counter-sign all decisions, the king has now started inviting the fighting sides to outright negotiations at his own table.

People with a more detailed insight into the Belgian constitution will have to decide when and if the king will overstep the line, but it is in any case becoming increasingly clear that he is slowly taking over from the man appointed to the job, Yves Leterme. The picture is compunded by the fact that Mr Leterme has not only failed completely once – before the last few weeks’ total chaos, that is – but also by the fact that Mr Leterme is genuinely impopular as a Prime minister candidate. A majority of the Belgians do not support him in that role, largely because he is so unpopular in the French-speaking Wallonia district, which in turn is much because of his outspoken Flemish interest views.

However, Mr Leterme’s seeming inability to reconcile the different points of view in the current crisis – in much due to his inflexibility on Flemish issues – has led many to start thinking that he is not the right man to unite the vastly diversified Belgium under his leadership for a full government period, either. Now, the king’s inteventions are further undermining Mr Leterme’s position, and Mr Leterme is starting to look like a lame duck.

As for the king’s efforts, though, it seems that even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put the government back together again. Shrouded in secrecy, the strategy appears to have been to form a coalition government including the Socialists, who would otherwise have been left out, and lift the deal-breaking issues from the formation attempts so far (on how to share powers between the different layers of society) into a “council of wise men”. This strategy is looking fairly hopeless at the moment, though, as the Socialists have flatly rejected to step into a government to save their political opponents of the embarrasment of failing to form a government, and the two leading Flemish parties, the “nationalist lite” N-VA and Mr Leterme’s Christian Democrat CD&V, are as reluctant as ever to form a government without the state reform issues on its agenda.

De Standaard today openly claims that the king cannot save the proposed government, either. The question is, then: Who can?

Belgian Crisis: Desperate Attempts

Belgium’s king Albert II has formally asked the Flemish politician Yves Leterme (CD&V) to continue his attempts to form a government, in spite of this week’s complete breakdown in trust between the Flemish and the French-speaking parties that have negotiated unsuccessfully for 152 days to form a government that could find a majority in the Parliament.

The latest talk here is to form an “emergency government”, which will only have social and economic issues on its agenda but steer clear of any of the constitutional issues in which the current crisis in Belgium is rooted. However, the CD&V’s intended Flemish coalition partner, N-VA, has flatly rejected such an idea, and today, CD&V has joined the N-VA line.

N-VA was formed as an attempt to divide the Flemish national vote, which has seen the far-right if not right-extremist Vlaams Belang grow into one of the largest partis in Flanders. The N-VA is well aware that a too soft stance on Flemish nationalist issues will drive many voters back into the arms of Vlaams Belang, which has a very high-profile presence in its part of the country and can be said to be constantly campaigning. Vlaams Belang is openly secessionist and is hoping that the current Belgian crisis will lead to Flanders becoming an independent nation.

One scenario proposed by the De Morgen daily is for the N-VA to support the proposed coalition in Parliament without beng part of the government itself. This has been tried by the Swedish four-party centre-right coalition government of 1991-1994, which was depending on far-right populist party Ny Demokrati for a parliamental majority, a construction which proved instable and next to unworkable as the country’s financial crisis hit full force towards the end of the term.

Meanwhile, all the French political parties – both those involved in government formation talks as well as those who would be left out of the proposed government – will today for the first time invoke the so-called “Alarm bell procedure”, a legal quirk under which one of the country’s ethnic groups can freeze a decision taken by the other against its will. In this way, they hope to stall the implementation of Wednesday’s decision by the Flemish majority in the Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee to overrule the French-speakers and vote through a split of the constituency that encompasses the entire, mainly French-speaking Brussels as well as several Flemish areas including Halle and Vilvoorde.

French-speakers in the Flemish parts of this area fear that they will be unable to vote for French-speaking candidates, should the split go through, while the Flemings insist that the current situation gives the French-speakers disproportional influence. A constitution court has already ruled that the constituency is an anomaly compared to the rest of the country’s election system, and must be broken up, but the French-speaking Walloons have resisted implementing the decision.

Belgian Crisis: Why You Should Be Worried

I write quite a lot about the current crisis in Belgium right now ultimately because it concerns every European, as it might be a foreshadow of things to come in the EU.

After the ethnic and linguistic mud-slinging from French-speakers and Flemings alike has been disregarded, all can unite around one objective fact: Belgium is an artificial geopolitical entity, imposed on its inhabitants from the top down.

It is true that there was enough public support for the idea in 1830 to set up today’s Belgium for there to be an armed uprising against the Netherlands, which the country had been part of for the last fifteen years. But that was largely a revolution in reaction to the Protestant Dutch ruling over the Catholic Belgians, and as religion has become completely marginalised in today’s Western Europe, that is no longer an issue.

Rather, the superpowers of those days found it convenient to have an excuse to put another buffer zone in the middle of what was already – and would become for more than another hundred years – themain battlefield of Europe, one of the most strategic locations. The formation of the new state quickliy became a matter for the ruling elite, both domestic and international, and was thereafter imposed onto the people within its boundaries. There was little or no public say in the process, and even when democracy did catch on, large groups felt marginalised and unable to participate on equal terms.

All of this – all of this – could be written to describe the history of the European Union as well. The formation turning from a great idea into becoming a matter only for a ruling class; the lack of public say, the general apathy before the whole idea instead of healthy patriotism, the endless compromises to make everybody happy that eventually make nobody happy. The allocation of public funds from one end to another, leading to frustration among the payers and apathy and subsidy dependency among the receivers. The endless corruption that bit by bit undermines whatever public support there might have remained, and bit by bit reinforces the image of the state/union as a playground for a faceless nomenclatura, which is irrelevant to the citizens’ everyday lives. And so on, and so on.

In Belgium, this is resulting in anger among many, which should not be taken lightly. However, again, much of today’s Belgian crisis is also seemingly exploited by the political parties, who are probably more at odds with each other than their voters are. This is also fully possible in the EU, where political parties who play on people’s disappointment with what the state/union has done for them – or rather, not done for them – can quickly gain ground, and cause devastation once they have done so.

This should not be brushed off. The multi-faceted Belgium has been hailed as a model for how the EU in all its diversity could function – but its dysfunctions could in equal amount become a sad model for future tensions in Europe as well.

We may not be there yet, but national leaders in the EU member states would be wise to monitor the disintegration of Belgium very, very closely, and ask themselves some seriously tough questions on how to avoid this happening in the EU as a whole. 

Belgian Crisis: French Front Forms

The French-speaking parties have responded to today’s decision where the Flemish overruled them in using their majority in Parliament to vote in favour of splitting the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency. The French-speaking parties have decided to invoke the special procedure in Belgium, under which any of the country’s two ethnic groups that feels discriminated against, can delay a decision by 60 days. This will be used on Friday to stall the implementation of today’s vote.

Thus, a new election to try to break the current stalemate cannot take place during this year.

However, there has been no formal calling off of the governmental formation talks yet, and they may very well continue once the dust has settled and feelings have cooled. Both sides appear tonight almost slightly embarrassed by their respective inflexibility forcing the crisis to reach this level, and there has been some retracting of confrontational rhetoric from both sides during the cause of the day. Especially the French-speaking parties have called on all politicians to take their responsibility in solving the crisis, well aware that that is what most Belgians want them to do, after all.