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.

By George!

I almost forgot – but today is actually the most forgotten holiday in the British Isles: St. George’s Day, the national day of the English.

Not the British, that is, for the proud nation of the United Kingdom has no national day at all, only the Queen’s official birthday (what nonsense), but the English. Which is only beginning to become known in later years (ugh, that was a nasty sentence, but I’m too tired to rewrite it).

So while the Scots wallow in haggis on Burns Night and the Irish roll in Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day (quarter irish as I am, I grumpily boycotted the latter event this year simply because my schedule on that day prevented me from joining in the said rolling), the English do not even have a Bank Holiday on their national day, which pases most people by unnoticed anyway.

I am currently reading (and much enjoying) Jeremy Paxman’s The English: A Portrait of a People, where he points out the irony of the mainland of the former British Empire lacking such a national identity of its own. Mind you, we don’t even have an anthem of our own either, so, for example, whenever England wins the football (soccer) World Championship (ho hum), we have to borrow the national anthem of the whole of Britain, which in turn is little else than a prayer for the salvation of the Queen and has nothing to do with the rest of the country anyway.

But then again, maybe the chronic lack of football success is one of the reasons why those of us who were born in that part of the country find it so difficult to muster an English identity.

We recently discussed this at work, where the ever-present discussion on what to name the various bparts of Britain in news texts reappeared. I tried to point out that most people in, say Devon, Cornwall or Yorkshire would be perfectly happy to be called “British”, while writing “Edinburgh in Britain” would probably be enough to spark a new William Wallace uprising, even though it is technically correct.

And while there is an increasing sense of Englishness in England, the truth is that most English would refer to themselves as British rather than anything else.

Or am I wrong here? What say ye English readers of this blog? Your thoughts on this are most welcome in the Comments section.

Happy St. George’s to you while you think about what to write.

Money Back Guarantee

Believe it or not, but the European Union does actually have a money back guarantee.

I’m not joking. The only catch is that you don’t get your money back if it isn’t working; but only if they haven’t managed to spend all the money you paid them during the last year.

Consequently, the EU is now paying back a total of EUR 1.5bn to its 27 member states, distributed according to the states’ gross national income (GNI). In other words, the most money to the fattest cats in the club, but that’s beside the point.

The full distribution list can be found here.

The EU Commission this year brags that this year’s budget surplus is the smallest ever, insisting that this is evidence of its excellent capacities forplanning and not asking too much in membership fees.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that they’ve been better than ever at wasting our money away this year, and that it’s a failure that they aren’t able to return much more of our money.

I’l leave it to you to decide which version you prefer.

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.

When She’s 64

As the European Parliament today votes on whether or not to approve the new EU Commissioner for Health, Androula Vassiliou, I shall take the risk of making myself rather unpopular with her by restating the fact that she is 64 years old.

Innocent as that factoid may seem, it was the source of some outrage from her designated spokesperson when people started to notice that there was no information available about her age anywhere, and reporters started to ask.

“In Greek, in our culture, it is a bit rude to ask for a woman’s age. So if you insist that much, I would suggest that you do some research on Google and you will find the CV of the commissioner and there you can find her exact age,” the EU Commission spokesperson Nina Papadoulaki said according to EUbusiness.com, claiming that she did not know her age herself. (Ms Papadoulaki didn’t know Ms Vassiliou’s age, that is).

Anyway. Mounting pressure on this ever-important issue later forced the Commission to concede that Ms Vassiliou was born on 30th November 1943, the news service reports. Even her Wikipedia article has been updated with this revealing news, I notice.

While I don’t have much time for ageism in our youth-fixated society, I simply marvel at the difficulties the Commission has at even releasing such a trivial bit of information. A woman’s age may be considered a private matter in Cyprus, but Ms Vassiliou is appointed to represent the EU as a whole – not any country – and the question of age wich may or may not shed light on her ability and willingness to fulfill her job duties for years to come is very much relevant to those of us who have to foot the bill for her salary.

Sometimes the Commission seems set to secrecy by default. And then they wonder why public support for the EU is so low.

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.