A year on, and the Belgians are in no rush to form a government


EUROPEAN DIARY:The representatives of Wallonia and Flanders show no signs of compromising and some feel that only an external shock might force them to do so

IN THE metro stations of Brussels they pipe old pop hits for commuters. Songs in English, Spanish and Italian can be heard. They no longer play songs in French, the city’s main language, because Dutch-speakers took umbrage.

No battle is too trivial in Belgium’s language wars.

If the linguistic schism permeates everything in Belgian life, the divisions are only worsening.

Fully one year has now passed since the country went to the polls to elect a new government, but the election winners still can’t reach a powersharing agreement. Yet more factional deadlock beckons.

At issue are unyielding demands for a huge increase in regional autonomy from the hard-line nationalists of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), who prevailed in the northern, Dutch-speaking, part of the country. Believing Belgium to be an irretrievably broken political entity, the N-VA leader, Bart De Wever, wants an independent Flanders.

In defiant agitation against him stands the French-speaking Parti Socialiste (PS) leader Elio Di Rupo, who took the spoils in the southern region of Wallonia.

There’s no end in sight. At this point, bewildering levels of obfuscation and political improvisation are a matter of routine. Yves Leterme, the prime minister, has now held office in a caretaker capacity for far longer than he had command of a real government. That has not prevented his temporary administration from sending fighter jets to bomb Libya or from enacting a cost-trimming budget for this year.

A while back the caretakers appointed a new central bank governor, Luc Coene, who promptly said the country needed a full-fledged government to confront its economic problems. He’s still waiting.

Thanks in large part to an already strong level of political autonomy in Belgium’s regions, the country hasn’t descended into chaos. All public services are running smoothly and the economy grew at more than twice the expected rate in the first quarter of the year. As the euro crisis rages on, however, Belgium’s high national debt is a big concern for the EU authorities.

The prolonged gridlock is so severe that questions are being raised – not for the first time — about the long-term viability of the unitary Belgian state.

Government formation in Belgium is supposed to operate like this: when votes are counted King Albert appoints the obvious prime minister-in-waiting to lead talks on a government programme. In local parlance that person is typically known as the formateur, that is it is he (always he) who forms the government. It’s not working.

They’ve now been through so many rounds of fruitless talks under so many chairmen that they’re running out of expressions in French to describe who is in charge of the proceedings.

Two men have held the title informateur, appointed to tell the king what each side is saying and that they really are as far apart as they seem. One was the préformateur, with charge of preliminary talks in full recognition that no deal was imminent. Three people have had the role of conciliateur, with the objective of bringing divided leaders to their senses, and there was one clarificateur, charged with assessing whether any compromise was at all possible. There has also been one négotiateur.

Really? Yes. At the very outset of the Northern Ireland peace process they had “talks about talks”. It’s the same in Belgium, endlessly.

At various points the hot seat has been held by De Wever or Di Rupo. They may smile for the photographs outside negotiation rooms but their relationship is more than a touch antagonistic. De Wever said at the weekend that his party pursues the politics of the 21st century while claiming his rivals were stuck in the 19th century. It goes back and forth, day after day.

While there’s a deepening cultural divide between the Flemish and Walloon people, money lies at the heart of this dispute. Large fiscal transfers to Wallonia from Flanders rankle badly with De Wever’s supporters, just as they are portrayed as the inalienable birthright of the Walloons.

Neither side will budge, fuelling expectation that the stalemate will continue until at least the autumn.

At that point, Leterme and his ministers will have to start thinking about a budget for 2012. That people voted in droves to turf them out of office a year ago yesterday is not lost on anyone. But then, this is Belgium. “You’ve got to remember this is the home of surrealism,” quips a diplomatic source.

“Nobody believes that either the N-VA or the PS will be willing to make the sacrifices or the compromises that are necessary to conclude a deal.” Many Belgians believe a blast of severe pressure from sovereign debt markets or Europe may jolt the politicians to their senses. While the country feels the heat whenever Spain comes under pressure, its bickering leaders still luxuriate in constitutional debate. They act as if they have all the time in the world.