Belgium, government and the euro

Belgium is having some trouble getting a government, nothing necessarily unusual about that but this time seems particularly bad. Almost three months after an election it is still without a government and negotiations have basically hit a brick wall. In addition to the usual tensions and disagreements between the linguistic groups, some are arguing that Belgium’s decision to join the euro is contributing to the failure. The argument is that in the past such a political crisis would have created a monetary crisis, this risk or event focused minds to ensure a government was created but now no such risk exists.

  • me_me

    The Problem there is, that nobody really wants the “Union” of the two parts of the country anymore. It’s just the king and the fact, that an existing state is easier to handle than to change things.

  • DC

    Hey, this sounds all too familiar. Except here differing cultures with differing linguistic tendencies often fight under the protection of British Sterling.

    Are we to advocate cutting the subvention in order to encourage the politicians to work together, hopefully using innovation that leads to heavy private sector intervention to claw back such funds.

    I’m starting to wonder if partition didn’t actually save the Irish Republic from fiscal chaos, as I suspect such extremism, which Northern Ireland has experienced, would have been desperately hard to support from within a developing nation.

    Even in today’s financial climate I imagine the Irish would run a political mile if they had to carry the now claimed £1.5 billion, as part of the proof of the costs that come from not getting on with each other.

  • That article from is just bizarre – the Euro has prevented us having a financial crisis, therefore the Euro is bad… er, OK. This fellow seems to think that an economic crisis is enough to inject some common sense into a disintegrating polity, which is touchingly sweet and completely ignorant of history.

    The Problem there is, that nobody really wants the “Union” of the two parts of the country anymore

    That isn’t actually true… Brussels is staunchly ‘unionist’, most Walloons and a large number of Flemings aren’t keen to split the place up either. It’s certainly true that Belgium could well split up in the next decade or two; but it’s also entirely possible that it won’t. If it does split up, things could get very ugly in some of the Brussels suburbs that are part of Flanders but overwhelmingly Francophone.

  • Dewi

    Sammy – only place in the world that could be called a metaphor in any sense for NI. Why not just split it up – won’t hurt anyone ? Brussels suburbs so polylingual anyway they won’t mind.

  • DavidD

    One intriguing fact about the Belgian situation is that the Dutch, possibly for religious reasons, have never evinced the slightest interest in ‘protecting’ their Flemish brethren. Consequently the demands from the Flemings have been for autonomy or independence not a re-union with the Netherlands. I suspect that if a break-up did occur the economically weak Walloon area would seek to join France. For the eastern German-speaking parts it would be a case of ‘zurück ins Reich’.

  • Dawkins


    “For the eastern German-speaking parts it would be a case of ‘zurück ins Reich’.”

    You mean a sort of Alsace/Lorraine situation?

    Yikes. We know where that kind of thing can lead, don’t we?

  • Dewi

    I honestly never knew there were German speaking bits of Belguim. Live and learn eh !

  • IJP


    Belgium is indeed a worrying reminder of what “carve-ups” do for you.

    After all, d’Hondt was a Belgian!


    You’ve been honest enough to admit you didn’t know there was a German-speaking bit, so I hope you’ll not mind my correcting your earlier post.

    Belgium is not polylingual. Outside Brussels and a couple of other exclaves, it’s monolingual. But the language it’s monolingual in is Dutch in the north and French in the south.

    The suburbs of Brussels are not polylingual, they are monolingual Dutch. The problem is that many of them now have a majority monolingual French-speaking population. But they are still legally Dutch-speaking. Therein lies the recipe for disaster to which Sammy refers, and the lesson to which DC refers.

  • Dewi @ 09:01 PM:

    Imagine: German-speaking Belgians, with a taste for mayonnaise-loaded chips. But can one name an eleven for a cricket team?

    My take is that Belgium is the most bourgeois bit of Europe, Antwerp is the most bourgeois bit of Belgium, and Nationalestraat is the most bourgeois bit of Antwerp. It’s all so nice: just the pokes of frites and the tin buckets of moules that get me.

    Surely, if there is one statelet that really is a deliberate creation of British machinations (present company not excepted), it has to be Belgium.

    That should have annoyed enough of you for one day.

  • IJP @ 02:07 PM:

    Sorry, wish I waited until you’d finished. All true, very true: but the niceness extends to them all (Walloon,Vlaamse) speaking excellent English. And for anyone who suffered a bit of Old English at Uni, all those supermarkets with products identified in Vlaamse make excellent sense.

  • Yingyangsang


    True the Flemish are quite posh but the francophones are more relaxed.
    Antwerp is certainly the worst.How to they keep everything so clean and yet walk so many dogs.Jack russels that have been thought to wipe themselves!
    As for the Moules and frites,I wouldn’t complain at all.Beautiful.Terrace by the seaside,if only the Flemish could be exported to London where they’d go down a treat.As for the Germanophones,well there only a few percent and so know to keep their mouths shut.

  • DavidD

    Worrying indeed Dawkins. Already they are saying in Berlin “Heute Eupen, morgen die ganze Welt”.

  • George

    After all the sacrifices we made for “little Belgium” they least they could do is last until a century after WW1.

    After 2018 and the big party, they can go their own separate ways.

  • Rory

    This is quite heartening news.

    From the Belgian experience we learn that all we have to do the first time that there is a crisis in the Assembly government (over language issues perhaps) is to concoct a monetary crisis and, hey presto! – political crisis finds instant resolution.

    Now why didn’t we think of that in 1922?

  • You’re a cynical lot, but I like you (to be accompanied by a swing of a handbag).

    Yingyangsang @ 02:27 PM:
    Is it my imagination, or is one of the distinguishing features not just the language of the street signs, but the smell of the drains?

    As for the exports to London, the best bits (i.e. the beer) are already here, if you know where to look. And, is the attention to street hygiene (for which I say, yeah!) a legacy of past Austrian occupation?

    Apart from that, any country with trams and a decent public transport system is streets ahead in my book. So, if the Huns, Swiss or Dutch won’t take it on, any chance that NMBS/SNCB (or anybody) can run Translink?

    Hey, I’m thinking positive! 1hr 51min for St Pancras-Brussels South in a few days time! (Another kick up the Khyber for Michael O’Leary’s air force.) Breakfast at home, a couple of beers on Eurostar, prix-fixe for lunch. Or, if someone else is paying, at La Maison du Cynge: look round the well-fed capitalist faces, and remember this is where the “Communist Manifesto” was written. Oh, the irony!

  • Rory @ 04:36 PM:

    Careful, there!

    There was a significant currency crisis in 1922-3. It led to hyperinflation and a fashion for jackboots, panzers and toothbrushes on top lips. We don’t want accidents like Sean Russell’s later days, do we?

  • Dewi

    “Belgium is not polylingual. Outside Brussels and a couple of other exclaves, it’s monolingual. But the language it’s monolingual in is Dutch in the north and French in the south.

    The suburbs of Brussels are not polylingual, they are monolingual Dutch. The problem is that many of them now have a majority monolingual French-speaking population.”

    I never claimed that Belgium was polylingual – I was referring to the city of Brussels where 56% of population have neither French nor Dutch as mother tongue….

  • IJP

    I was referring to the city of Brussels where 56% of population have neither French nor Dutch as mother tongue…

    And Sammy was referring to the suburbs, whose growing French-speaking population is one of the main reasons for the above statistic!

    (That stat is of questionable relevance in any case, given the number of “temporary residents”.)

  • Dewi

    IJP – fascinating from Economist. Francophones knew the rules when they moved to a Flemish zone I suppose. There are French speaking zones not far away.

  • Dewi

    That sounded terribly intolerant didn’t it ? Sorry – just that Belgium seems to have system of political and lingusitic division that seems to have maintained a(admittedly fragile) a political peace. Personally think a split couls be healthy oin the Czech – Slovak model.

  • IJP


    It sounded intolerant – but also accurate. That’s the system.

    My (and I think Sammy‘s) point is that it’s a bloody stupid system.

    Northern Ireland delivered political peace in the late ’20s. Not in the late ’60s though. That’s the point…

  • Rory

    “Northern Ireland delivered political peace in the late ‘20s.”

    Indeed, IJP, much like the post civil war peace that reigned in Mississipi and kept the “darkies” all peacefully singing and eating melon.

    But, as you astutely point out, “Not in the late ‘60s though”.

    That is what you meant, wasn’t it?

  • It’s actually more complicated than all that…

    The suburbs of Brussels which have a Francophone majority (over 90% in some cases) are in Flanders, legally Dutch speaking, but equally legally with special ‘facilities’ for French speakers, largely dating from the days when the language frontier was declared immovable in the (I think) 1950s. Radical Flemish politicians have continually campaigned to reduce or remove these facilities. The communities with language facility have not only been one of the main issues of community division in recent Belgian history, but would be the single largest factor preventing a Czechoslovak-style velvet divorce.

    As far as the German community goes, there is a Germanophone community government but not a German-speaking territorial government; the German speaking district is politically part of Wallonia, and in Wallonia it would end up if Belgium ever split up. Belgium has three territorial regions – Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, and three language-community governments – Dutch, French and German. While the Dutch-speakers have merged the Dutch-speaking and Flanders parliaments, the others are still separate and the Dutch-speakers fund some cultural and educational things in Brussels and, I think, in the disputed village of Fourons, “Belgium’s Belfast”.

    With a federal government as well, Belgium has seven nominally sovereign authorities with overlapping territory and population. Confused? You ought to be. The Belgians usually are.

  • Dewi

    What did Paddy Ashdown say “No solution to Northern Ireland would be simple ?” Belgian “solution” certainly not that. Seemed not to have had any pogroms for a while though Sammy. Biggest problem to velvet divorce probably not the communities with facilities (which exist for Dutch speakers in Wallonia also) but Brussels itself – what would happen there ?

  • IJP


    Yes, precisely.

    Just because it’s “peaceful”, doesn’t mean it’s “fair”.

    And if it’s not “fair”, it’ll eventually not be “peaceful”.

  • IJP


    It’d become an independent city-state, a kind of “European District of Columbia”.

    Like I say, Brussels isn’t the problem. The suburbs are.

    (There were few pogroms here from 1928-68.)

  • Sammy Morse @ 10:43 PM:

    Famous last words: It’s actually more complicated than all that… A consideration never previously recognised as a serious obstacle on Slugger.

    Nice attempt to unscrew the inscrutable, however.

    I’ve just had a few moments fun on which reckons on the following nine languages (apart from the identifiable ethnic communities) being current in Belgium:
    Belgian sign language.
    Dutch (in two dialects: Brabants and Oost-Vlaams), with about 4.7M speakers.
    French (emphatically ‘Lorraine’ dialect: but my French dictionary also identifies ‘Belgicisms’), about 4m speakers.
    “Standard” German (which explains the previous remark about Eupen), just 150,000 speakers.
    Limburgisch (which, until now, I thought involved a peculiarly smelly cheese), some 600,000 speakers.
    Luxembourgeois, about 30,000 speakers (and I remember them well from around Bastogne and Arlon).
    Picard (huh?), in Hainault.
    Vlaams (about 1.7m in West Flanders).
    Walloon (about 1.1 m, but “few monolinguals”, and was “spoken in Green Bay, Wisconsin”).
    And — wait for it! —
    Europanto “spoken in Brussels, European Union buildings. Classification: Artificial language.”

  • Dewi

    Ethnogue brilliant site Malcolm but sadly this data is v old.
    Don’t think there are that many Wallonian speakers left anymore to be honest – although given some recognition by Wallonian Government (one of the 3 branches Sammy told us about) in 1990.
    Most fascinating stuff on Ethnologue is the native American Languages – how many have died and how many are dying every decade. IMHO tragic.

  • Dewi @ 11:43 PM:

    Yes, and at first sight I thought you said “the data is void”. Indeed. I think I got some sort of indication from the “Europanto” rubbish. And have we not all learned to be wary of things Texan, especially from Dallas? (Since every other prejudice gets an outing on Slugger, why not mine?)

    I then got stuck in the UK languages (Polari, yikes!) as my trip before bed-time.

    I’ll take you up on the native Americans when I’ve a moment or fifteen. Some years ago I picked up materials at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. That would be specific to the northern Plains Indians (Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, Shoshone – and the term “Indian” does feature). Before that again, the Arts Council did an exhibition in 1974 (and I’ve still got stuff from that, but I guess there’s little on language therein).

    I have to admit having had difficulty in taking this whole thread seriously, based as it is on the blathering of one right-wing commentator. I console myself by recalling the Benelux nations have a longer history of co-operation than any of us Europeans (am I allowed that term?). There appears always to be some kind of continuing governmental crisis, but the three nations, together and separately, survive and prosper. Is there a lesson therein?

  • IJP


    Your final paragraph is very serious – and poses a question I’ve long considered.

    Is not “stability” a little overrated?

  • IJP @ 03:43 PM:

    I know where you’re coming from.

    As my father would have said, “It’s got to be true. It’s in the papers.”

    It’s the metaphysical distance between a “crisis” and a crisis.

    The former appears in the media on a daily basis, but (like a soap opera) seems to be resolved in the next exciting episode. Such matters are inevitably hyperbole and froth, for example David Cameron’s discovery of “Britain in anarchy”. Could it be that we need such mock-traumas, such catharsis, to compensate for no longer watching out for sabre-toothed tigers?

    The latter involves waking up to find the panzers well into Poland, or when it is finally revealed that large parts of the African continent are suffering genocide.

    All the “home nations”, perhaps all European nations with one possible exception, are small, and (in geopolitical terms) overweening. Yet we each want and expect our moment of glory. Our only hope of recognition in Pocatello, Idaho, is for CNN or Fox News to acknowledge a “crisis”. Otherwise our claim to fame is forever to be the “And, finally” oddity at the end of the bulletin.

    Maybe the Benelux countries have just had more practice at such aggrandisement.

  • IJP



    For the record, I also find the whole concept of “independence” somewhat overrated. Actually I find it loopy.

    Flanders, or Catalonia, or Scotland, or my back garden may become “sovereign”, but they’ll never be “independent”.

    There’s a whole globalized world out there. If the article we’re discussing reminds us of anything relevant, it’s that. And there is the lesson for NI too.