The End of Belgium? by Nigel Williams

On the eve of the General Election flandersnews.be asked the British/Flemish comedian Nigel Williams to look at the state of Belgium. He quickly came to the conclusion that it could go either way.

June Elections, New Coalition?

The End of Belgium? Or more of the same?

The more the merrier!

If democracy is measured by the amount of parliaments, politicians and elections a country has, then Belgium takes first prize, no contest! There’s the Federal Parliament, the Flemish Parliament, the Brussels Parliament, the Walloon Parliament, a little one for the German-speakers, and a few I’ve probably forgotten.

Then there’s the political parties, covering a wide range of nuance and “after the comma” debate from extreme right wing to extreme centre, splits and new parties that make your head reel just by trying to find the difference between them. There is an old saying in this predominantly Catholic country that says “every family has at least one priest”, nowadays (and with a more secular society) it should be changed to “every family has at least one politician”. Politics in Belgium seems to be becoming more and more a collection of small family businesses. When the new leader of the Flemish Liberals was elected a few months back it was hardly a surprise that the choice fell to the son of one of the most prominent leaders of the Liberals and a former Speaker of the Chamber of Representatives.

Fact is that there are a growing number of “political dynasties” in Belgium, in all parties,

Even European President, Herman Van Rompuy, has a few party colleagues in his family, and his sister is candidate for the (ex-Maoist) microscopic left wing party PVDA.

Coalitions,”I’ll scratch yours if you scratch mine.”

June 13th is the date set for elections to the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate - these are the national ones by the way! Three years after Christian Democrat Yves Leterme set out to end the dispute between Francophone and Flemish communities around Brussels with his slogan “5 minutes of political courage!” (to find a solution), his coalition government threw in the towel, so now we’re back to stage one, Elections!

I’m all for coalitions in politics, a coalition takes the edge off hardliners, no party has the upper hand in government and that little bit of water in the wine of party manifestos makes it all a little less radical and more digestible than the “huff and puff” of electioneering would suggest.

The public debate leading up to the June 13th elections seems to infer that we could be heading for a bit of a stalemate this time. The Flemish nationalist party N-VA are tipped to cause a political landslide on the Flemish side, although there are at least 4 or 5 other parties who will gain enough votes to influence a coalition not least the Christian democrats and the Liberals, while the French-speaking Walloon electorate seem to be heading toward a political showdown between the social democrat PS and its liberal opponent the MR, with the Christian democrat CDH and green party Ecolo also taking a big enough share to have a say in future coalitions.

The question is will a coalition government be possible after an election where the winners are diametrically opposed on major institutional reform (if not so much on social economic ground).

The Flemish N-VA, who look likely to be the biggest winners, don’t hide the fact that their goal is ultimately an independent Flanders, although for these elections they have settled with the formula of a “confederal model”.

“Money talks......... in all languages”

While the politicians rant on about electoral and institutional reforms to protect the rights of both language groups in the periphery of Brussels, the “man in the street” has other problems, the growing unemployment being not the least.

The whole of Europe is in the grip of cuts to public spending and reductions of national debt. Belgium will be no exception, so the question is will the political bickering between the two communities force a stalemate which would endanger an economic plan? Or will the eternal law of coalition politics rein supreme, after all a coalition of at least 6 parties will mean that no party will be able to fulfil all or any of their election promises. Despite all the regional huffing and puffing the wall of economic reality will not go away.

Or maybe not

There is though, another scenario, one which a few years ago was subject to hilarity but with the growing frustration toward the political stalemate between the two communities (Francophone and Flemish), could become reality...... The End of Belgium!!

Will the political posturing and “talking the talk” on both sides of the language barrier lead to divorce? What would happen to Brussels? The Royal family? (the ones in the palace, not the TV series)

Which community would have claims on “Belgian Chocolate”, “Belgian Beer” or the statue of the little boy urinating (Manneken Pis)???

Whatever happens one thing is for certain, even a splitting up of the country will have to be decided on by a coalition, or another election................. so watch this space!

Meanwhile I’m off for a beer.

Nigel Williams