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.
“Technically this can last until the next federal election has to be called in 2014,” says political scientist David Sinardet.
“Let’s say we have elections in 2014 and we have some problem forming a coalition, this caretaker government could still go on after that. As long as it commands a majority in parliament the only obstacle to it continuing would be the fear of absurdity.”
And, whilst noting that “Belgium is ticking along nicely”, the BBC report suggests a potentially greater problem than absurdity
The big question is whether this caretaker government will embark on the long-term reform of public finances that most parties agree is necessary, in order to start slashing Belgium’s massive debt – the third highest in the EU.
On a day-to-day basis, though, Belgium is ticking along nicely. Its economy is growing, exports are up, inward foreign investment has continued, the country’s presidency of the European Union in 2010 was deemed a success, and it has contributed to the Nato bombing of Libya.
This is partly because the caretakers and their civil servants are efficient managers, but also because many powers have already been devolved to Belgium’s regional governments and linguistic communities – not to mention the pooling of sovereignty with other members of the eurozone and European Union.
“We have a new form of government, a new form of democracy, proving to the world that this crazy idea that you need full government with full powers may be just not true,” says David Sinardet, a professor at Antwerp University and the Free University of Brussels, with a heavy dose of irony.
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.
The outcome of the euro crisis may force their hand…