Tuesday, April 27, 2010
The Oxymoron of a Politically Stable State in Belgium
...this is a picture of the tortoise Hot Springs Wizard recently brought to a place of refuge out in the boonies, and free from the human-induced turmoil exemplified by the following post.
Getting back to the "real world," which often seems even stranger than our other-worldly speculations, our friend from Belgium updates us on the dysfunction of the State of Belgium. I thought we had it bad....
by our friend from Belgium
Belgian politics is like an oil and water emulsion which now and again starts to separate out before someone comes along to give it a good stir up. In the same way as a camel is said to be a horse designed by a committee the Belgian political system could only have been designed by such a committee.
First a little bit of history which I will keep simple since I do not know the in depth stuff myself. 150 years ago Belgium did not exist, the land which is now called Belgium was part of The Netherlands or Holland as some called it in earlier times and it bordered on Northern France. French speaking people populated the Ardennes which is the scenic hilly region north of the French border although French influence continued to a lesser extent through Flanders, the flat part, up to the river Schelde. At that time the French speakers were prosperous and elitist but the tables have turned and they are now poor and elitist. Wallonia, the political area of Belgium occupied by French speaking people (or The Ardennes) hangs at the bottom of every European monitoring scale making it an officially depressed area whilst the Dutch speaking part to the north is one of the economic powerhouses of Europe.
In the early 60’s when the Vlaardingen were coming into the ascendency and flexing their muscles, relations between the two groups had deteriorated to the extent that there was civil unrest with attacks and reprisals between opposing factions. There was a solution imposed or reluctantly agreed which was as well thought through as the division of Palestine. This is where the committee really got into action and came up with the best fix which all could agree on but which really suited no one. There was to be a local assembly (parliament) for the Dutch speakers in the north. People who live in defined Vlaanders could vote for a Dutch speaking representative. A similar situation existed in Wallonia for the French speakers. The capital Brussels was officially bilingual, even though 90% of the inhabitants speak French and inhabitants could vote for either a French or Dutch speaking representative. Each group therefore had its own assembly. In addition to this there is an overall umbrella national parliament to coordinate the other three groups. All this for a total population if eleven million people. Now here is where it gets tricky because there are not one but two complicating factors which have been a running sore for fifty years now. Firstly, unlike the USA or the UK, Belgium does not have a first past the post electoral system where the party with the most votes is the one which forms the government. Most countries within Continental Western Europe have a Proportional Representation system whereby the administration is a coalition of parties which can form a majority in the proportion in which citizens voted for them. This is a system designed for mediocrity and shoddy compromises. The party with the highest votes can invite other parties to join it and is the party which generally calls the shots but sometimes the tail can trip up the beast. The trouble with this is that the Prime minister (they call him a “Voorzitter” or Chairman here) and the National Cabinet can and often is made up of people that many of the citizens could not have voted for.
The second and more major problem is that the administrative line which separates Dutch speaking Belgium from French speaking Belgium runs ten to fifteen miles south of the southern limit of (90% French speaking) Brussels so that the Capital is landlocked within the Dutch speaking part. For all these years the French speakers have been demanding an administrative corridor between the capital and their bit. Shared responsibility has been tried where the French speakers ran the local councils directly to the south of Brussels and the Dutch speakers ran the police, fire services and other similar bodies. There are two reasonably sized towns in this area, Halle and Vilvoorde and this is where the crux of the problem lies. Citizens who need access to their representative are fed up, I mean truly fed up trying to deal with an official who refuses to speak with them in their mother tongue. Maybe you have heard the shorthand expression B-H-V (Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde); this is what it is about. When this system clearly wasn’t working the people from the area in question were accorded the same rights as those in Brussels but it didn’t really eliminate the tensions. The French speakers have agreed to abandon the area to the Dutch speakers but they want their quid pro quo in the form of an enlarged Brussels. This amounts to just moving the problem somewhere else since other parts of Vlanders will become Brussels. In order to bring the problem to a head the legislative branch ordained that there could be no future elections until Halle - Vilvoorde was separated from Brussels, in other words they could no longer choose between Dutch OR French speakers to represent them because this was unfair to other areas of Vlaanders and so some Dutch speaking areas would remain as before whilst some parts of the Dutch area would become totally administered by the French speakers. On Friday last, in a political move, the Open VLD (Vlams Liberal Democrats) walked out of the national assembly leaving it without a majority. There have been frantic efforts by three former Prime Ministers over the weekend to find a solution but the only suitable party, the socialists have sat on their hands and today the national government fell. The difficulty is that the King cannot call for a new election because that is illegal until the B-H-V separation is carried out and this apparently is an insoluble problem. You should also be aware that the Dutch speakers make no territorial claims on the soil of the French speaking people.
Apart from the political considerations above there are also economic and social issues. In order to all get along and be one Belgium together, Vlanders gives Wallonia one billion Euros every month, just to stay afloat. The French speakers take the money and in return give the north that Dick Cheney look where it appears everybody in the room has farted at the same time. Surprisingly the largest French political party by far is the socialists. This reminds me of a very old rhyme, you will know how old it is because the UK decimalised its currency in 1972. Before that there were twelve pennies in a shilling.
What is a Socialist?
One who has yearnings
To share equal profits
From unequal earnings
Be an idler or bungler
Or both, he is willing
To fork out his sixpence
And pocket your shilling.
This perceived altruism is too much for some in the north where a xenophobic Nationalist Party has strong roots, particularly in the Antwerp region. This party used to be known as the Vlaams Bloc with a double meaning in the word bloc. In one sense it can be like the former Russian Bloc or it can mean to stand in the way and prevent something. What they were in favour of denying was unlimited entry into Belgium of people from Africa and Turkey. They take the view that jobs can be outsourced without ever leaving the country. In a court case they were judged to be a racial organisation so they changed their name to the Vlaams Belang which means the importance of coming from northern Belgium. They run poster campaigns in Arabic saying Vlaams jobs for Vlaams people and in a heartbeat they would cut Wallonia loose as a separate state.
There are social problems too. Apart from being the capital city, Brussels is also home to the European Parliament and NATO Headquarters. The strain on living accommodation in a defined area is intense and with predictable results people, mostly French speaking people are moving outside the circle and into Halle – Vilvoorde. The Dutch speakers who have always lived there feel they are being populated out. As an example someone went to the baker to find that the shop had been taken over by French only speakers and the shopper didn’t know how to say “Whole wheat bread” in French. Some local authorities in the B-H-V region encourage people who wish to relocate to sell their houses to Dutch speaking families. This recently resulted in a French speaking woman who split up from her husband being refused a house near her children’s school even though she was a Belgian citizen. This resulted in accusations of apartheid being thrown around. In Vlaams schools, pupils from age ten are required to learn French. In Wallonia, pupils can choose between an hour a week English or an hour a week Dutch. Most figure that English will be the most useful to them so they never learn Dutch. When French and Dutch speakers meet they therefore default into French to the chagrin of the northerners. Sometimes they will agree to speak in English but this perceived French laziness gives them the upper hand.
This piece gives you some background to what is going on here but de facto Belgium has no government and it is illegal to hold elections until an insoluble problem is sorted out. These are interesting times – watch and wait.