“You’ve got to remember this is the home of surrealism”

That’s Belgium, not here.  Belgium took the ‘no government’ crown from Iraq in February, and they just keep going…  In the Irish Times, Arthur Beesley starts with a tale that sounds strangely familiar.

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.

The BBC report has a great quote

“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.

Back to Arthur Beesley in the Irish Times

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…

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  • Belgium is an entirely artificial “country” set up to stop Germans and French fighting each other……something it manifestly failed to do in 1870, 1914 and 1939.
    It faileda s a nation state.
    For much the same reason “Europe” exists centred predictably in Brussels. Complete with an influx of Yoorpeens who dont have Belgian interests at heart. They have made the city more Francophone and Francophobic.
    Trying to stop Germany and France fighting is of course a rather noble aspiration but not important enough for me to think of myself as a Yoorpeen.
    Thats the problem with artificial states…..they fail.
    Who would miss Belgium?
    Can anybody actually name three famous Belgians? Without referring to TinTin, Snowy and Captain Haddock.

    Thats the real connexion to Norn Iron. Artificial states (not merely artificial coalitions) dont work.

  • pippakin


    But isn’t it true that most countries with land borders are in one way or another artificial? If an island is the only true definition of a country then the bulk of the UK would be England, Scotland and Wales would not exist.

    A famous Belgian? Erm, Poirot? only joking…

  • otto

    Hercule Poirot, Jean Claude Van Damme and the wee Manneken Pis guy.

    But more importantly numerous unnamed monks from Chimay, Orval and elsewhere who prove that a country is defined by its artisans and not the reputations of a few noisy troublemakers.

    Who can name three owners of globally significant mittlestand family firms? Who thinks they deserve less recognition than some gobshite who wrote a book?

    I wonder how public sector productivity is improving in Belgium given that public sector people might be getting a chance, for once, to bed in some progress along the experience curve.

  • ayeYerMa

    Northern Ireland is more workable than the Belgian disaster any day. We’ve much more in common with each other here than our pathetic political system gives us credit. To think that the Belgian consociational system was held up as an exemplary model at the time of the GFA!! Say no to consociationalism – wafflers out of Norn Iron!

  • Jacky Ickx, Eddie Merkx, Georges Simonen.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Reduce Belgium to a “city State” ie. Brussels, merge Flanders with the Netherlands, the wee German bits with Germany, Luxembourg with Luxembourg and the rest to France. Problem solved 🙂

  • Well not really.
    I think I read somewhere that the majority of the Luxembourg population was born outside Luxembourg. Re-drawing the borders…..hmmmmmm. Newry-Armagh, Fermanagh South Tyrone, West Tyrone, Foyle, South Down go into the Republic. Merge the rest with Britain and make Belfast a City State?
    Is that what youre saying Drumlins Rock? 😉

  • Can anybody actually name three famous Belgians?

    Audrey Hepburn, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin

  • Tochais Síoraí

    Wonder how many in these parts signed their lives away in 1914 on the strength of the ‘Brave Little Belgium’ recruiting bandwagon?

  • So we now have proof that anarchism works.

  • Obelisk


    Horseman, who remains missed, did an extensive series on the potential re-partition of the north.

    It begins here


    Regardless of your opinions on Horseman’s demographic prophesying or his political point of view, I think he actually did a fairly thorough job of examining how it work with several different options available.

    Some of the maps in part 6 of that series are thought provoking at the very least. It’s been a while since I read the six posts and I don’t have the time now but I believe he felt that repartition would fail over Belfast.

  • I was not being entirely serious.

  • Drumlins Rock

    without side tracking too much, am pleased to say the Fermanagh “enclave” has now been reconnected to the Unionist East, as the Clogher Valley DEA had a Unionist majority this time round, which shows things are fluid, and the west can actually revert from Green back to Orange!

    However I would much rather live in a mixed society rather than some sort of repartitioned “cleansed” one, like Belgium appears to be. Highly artificial, miracle it has lasted so long! Ironically it is actually the same border that runs through NI & Belgium, ie. Germanic V Romasque.

  • George

    Northern Ireland is more workable than the Belgian disaster any day.

    Belgium didn’t have a one party state without a single elected Catholic Minister in its first 50 years of existence despite over a third of the population being Catholic. It certainly didn’t follow up such a travesty by 30 years of insurrection.

    We’ve much more in common with each other here than our pathetic political system gives us credit.,

    That’s why 40% of the voting population vote for parties that advocate the abolition of the very State they are in and a third have taken up the citizenship of another State.

  • I thought that most of the Flems were Catholic as well? Isn’t the border between the Netherlands and Belgium the religious boundary?

  • Drumlins Rock

    “That’s why 40% of the voting population vote for parties that advocate the abolition of the very State they are in and a third have taken up the citizenship of another State.”

    George, are you referring to Belgium or Northern Ireland there? As for history the French speaking population dominated for most of the states history, with the Flemish being very much second class, the tables have turned now I guess, so similarities with here. As for the 30 years of insurrection, your right, they didn’t have it, despite similar if not even greater differences, which shows how futile the IRA campaign was here.

  • ayeYerMa

    George, all the things you mention are more to do with the political parties than the actual people on the ground.

    Forget the past and look to the future. The latest NILT 2010 results are also out yesterday and year after year it shows we have more in common than not (http://www.politics.ie/northern-ireland/162795-2010-northern-ireland-life-times-survey-results-published-today.html). Religion is becoming more and more irrelevant. Language is a much more divisive issue that separates people. The future of NI is much brighter than that of Belgium.

  • On reflection, I don’t now see the analogies between NI and Belgium. One is at the crossroads of Europe: the other is (in European terms) where the E16 runs out of road at Craigavon Bridge.

    Then again, a couple of the Belgian banks did get into trouble in ’08. Didn’t those dozy Belgians manage to off-load half of Fortis onto the Dutch, and the other half onto BNP-Paribas? Nice trick, if you can do it.

    As Pippakin @ 2:55 pm implies, let’s not be too sniffy about artificial borders. And not just land ones: famously, Greece was where the Ottoman Empire broke against the wooden walls of the Royal Navy. Similarly, English foreign policy has remained unchanged over seven centuries: the Low Countries are inviolable. Remember Chaucer’s Merchant? —

    His resons he spak ful solempnely,
    Sownynge alwey th’ encrees of his wynnyng.
    He wolde the see were kept for any thyng
    Bitwixe Middelburgh and Orewelle.
    Wel koude he in eschaunge sheeldes selle.

    For Middelburg and the River Orwell, read the Berlaymont and Canary Wharf.

    Despite its chilling winter (last December I had to lay in ski-wear) and those unique sewer smells, I like Belgium and Belgians.

    The country simply works. It has effective public transport — who cannot like the toy-town metro in Brussels and Antwerp, or De Kusttram (the whole 42 mile coastline seen from a metre-gauge tram)? It has the finest, and most diverse breweries in Europe. Even if a bucket of moules, or de frituur is not to your taste every evening, in Belgium they eat well.

    The joke about naming a Belgian cricket XI (see usual names above) goes sour when so of those old Masters (via van Dyke and Rubens, and back to Bruegel) are included. We can forgive them for Johnny Halliday (paternally Belgian), but no need with Jacques Brel. and Django Reinhardt. Where would 20th century pop and jazz be without Adolphe Sax?

    Bottom line: the earnest wish of most Europeans is to be comfortably bourgeois. The Belgians are the archetypal Euro-bourgeoise. Belgian bourgeoiserie is at its zenith around Antwerp’s Meir and the Avenue Louise in Brussels.

    Handy hint: anywhere near the Palais de Justice (e.g. Rue de la Régence or running for the trams at Place Poelaert) cross the road in close proximity to one of those robed lawyers. It’s the only thing to which a Belgian driver prudently gives priority.

    Who needs a government when the bureaucracy (bourgeois to a man/woman) have it all running tickety-boo?

  • George

    I see you point me to the NILT Survey that amongst its many findings has the Sinn Féin vote at 11% and SDLP at 17%.

    Sorry but I always have difficulty lending any credence to the findings of that survey due to such huge and unexplained discrepancies in its results.

    Drumlins Rock,
    I was referring to Northern Ireland.

  • CW

    To add to the list of famous Belgians above how about:

    crime writer Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret), 70s electro-pop band Plastic Bertrand, Michel Preud’Homme voted best goalkeeper of the 1990 World Cup, the famous ‘60s singing nun Jeanine Deckers?

    But famous Swiss people on the other hand….er, tennis player Roger Federer and………..er………???

  • FuturePhysicist

    Belgium is an entirely artificial “country” set up to stop Germans and French fighting each other……something it manifestly failed to do in 1870, 1914 and 1939.

    Even if it were considered a neutral zone, it doesn’t explain the region has only a few German speakers.