Belgium's Caretaker Government Achieves Temporary Permanence

Despair has gripped Belgium that has gone 13 months without a real government since the elections.

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 09:05

Elio Di Rupo
Elio Di Rupo

In today's era of violent volatile markets in Europe, any sort of vulnerability can provoke a crisis. Belgium, whose deficit approaches one hundred percent of GDP, is vulnerable because it has set a record in length of coalition negotiations following the 2010 elections without a government being formed.

Belgium has now gone 13 months with a caretaker government, has even run a European presidency with this government and remains impervious to the warnings of the credit agencies that continued instability would have a negative impact on the country's credit ratings.

Belgium, due to its linguistic divide, has had protracted negotiations previously but in the end a saving formula was always found enabling the formation of a clumsy coalition necessitated by Belgium's complex party system.

In Belgium each party in the French-speaking Waloon area has its counterpart in the Flemish speaking Flanders-Christian Democrats, socialists, liberal parties and nationalist parties. A resident in either area can vote only from a choice of parties representing his linguistic region.

As a result coalition negotiations necessitate forming a dual coalition. This has worked to the advantage of the political leaders who are credited with pulling rabbits out of the hat in a country with a permanent coalition crisis.

The crisis is mitigated by the fact that Belgium does not have serious foreign affairs or defense problems. Prior to the European sovereign debt crisis, it was considered prosperous enough to withstand months of government paralysis.

Another factor that has cushioned Belgium against crisis is the constitution that devolves many key areas to the regional government. As opposed to American and Canadian federalism, these areas such as education, culture, agriculture, public works are the exclusive domains of each region without any federal interference.

The powers of the region even extend to signing international treaties in the region's area of competency. This is a result of a series of reforms since 1970 that accompanied a deal whereby prosperous Flanders would agree to transfer funds into the national treasury in return for increasing autonomy.

This will not work because the victor in Flanders in the 2010 election was the National Flemish Alliance N-VA headed by Bart De Wever. The party scored 28% of the votes in Flanders and its aspiration is not just increased autonomy but "confederation", a euphemism for independence.

De Wever last Thursday rejected outright a 111 page position paper prepared by Elio Di Rupo, charged with forming a government and the leader of the Socialist Party in Wallonia. De Wever rejected the paper on economic grounds. but the suspicion was that he was simply not interested in patching up Belgium again.

The Flemish have long term resentments dating from the country's long history in which the French looked down upon them as bumpkins and tried to impose French as the country's sole official language. Since World War II, the economic roles have been reversed and the French section, prosperous during the Industrial Revolution, has fallen upon hard times while Flanders has prospered.

Now economically prosperous Flanders views the national government that still commands most of the taxation powers as well as social welfare, as an apparatus that sucks money away from the hard-working, thrifty and religiously observant Flanders to shiftless, profligate and free thinking Wallonia.

Polls have shown that De Wever's position resonates with the voters in Flanders and if new elections were held today his party would better its previous percentages. This realization has scared off other Flemish parties who would perhaps have proven more amenable to a compromise.

Some have called for an outside mediator,  preferably a Canadian or Swiss citizen, with an extensive background on how I federal system works. However, as indicated it is not certain that the Flemish nationalists have federalism in mind but at least de facto separation.

The fact that Belgium is the headquarters of the European Union is more than symbolic. The Belgian Constitution has no proviso about secession just as the European Union has no powers for governing this contingency. It does not even have a mechanism where a member country can stop using the euro, something that is becoming a real possibility.

If Belgium were to split, this would be a nightmare for the European Union. First, it would constitute a precedent that would set off a chain of dominoes in Scotland, the Basque country, Catalonia and perhaps even northern Italy.

After all, if two linguistic cultures that have lived together in a problematic marriage since 1830 fall apart, what prospect is there for the far more diverse member states of the European Union to form an "ever closer union."