The trouble with Flanders

As The Economist’s Charlemagne columnist puts it, “Why Belgium’s unending linguistic disputes matter to Europe.”

You may not be aware that Belgium has just set a new record for any European state operating without an elected government — now over 230 days. This [surpasses ed. why doesn’t strikethrough work? It does now] is on course to surpass the 289 days (source: The Economist) it took Iraq to form its current government.

Belgium is the textbook case study of consociational power sharing — the type of power sharing whereby executive power is distributed among predefined groups (in Belgium’s case, linguistic Dutch-speakers (Flemish) versus French-speakers (Walloons), not forgetting its German-speakers).

This theory of government works under particular conditions, one of which is an “overarching loyalty” to some higher authorative figure/institution in the state. In Belgium this would be the monarcy and Albert II, King of the Belgians.

In the current crisis, King Albert has summoned no less than seven individuals to try to unblock the political impasse. There have been eight rounds of attempts. At one point, on 29 August 2010, the king refused the resignation of “pre-formateur” Elio Di Rupo (leader, Socialist Party), sending him out to try again. When Di Rupo’s further attempt failed, the king accepted his resignation on 3 September 2010.

The current “informateur”, Didier Reynders, is due to report back to the king on 16 February 2011.

Meanwhile, a caretaker government continues.

Why all this matters is because of the context in which it is taking place.

There is no question of any of the political groups resorting to violence to achieve secession. Indeed, Charlemagne quotes Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations:

By “taking the gun out of politics” the EU has contradictory effects. It makes it easier to draw violent groups into politics; but it also allows peaceful nationalists to act up, and voters to support them, because there is no danger of bloodshed.

Well, here in Northern Ireland we have suffered from both effects, haven’t we?

Yet Charlemagne points to an interesting paradox — “the slow dissolution of Belgium, the most pro-European of countries, goes hand in hand with the (uneven) deeper integration of the EU”.

Thus, I think we’re stuck with this European political symptom for some time to come.

Charlemagne ends on an optimistic note that Flemings and Wallons will live together for the sake of Brussels, as a larger split would wreck political and economic havoc for this city.

I am not so optimistic. When we approached Brussels municipal officials about our Forum for Cities in Transition project and invited them to an pilot conference, they declined, stating that they were not in conflict nor had anything in common with divided cities. True the citizens of Brussels haven’t experienced political violence, but I still find its denial of having anything to learn or share with other divided cities astounding.