Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Belgium still may be saved.... by the N-VA!

Give it another 17 days and Belgium will officially be the "World Champion in Not Forming a Government".
The country has been in limbo since last June's(!) elections and by the middle of this month, it will be 250 days that it's officially operated without a government. The fact that the country, minus a few jitters on the bonds markets, seems to be ticking along quite nicely, as it did the Czech Republic in a similar situation couple of years ago, probably tells us all we need to know about the indispensibility of political elites in modern democracies.

The party which polled the most votes last year, the Flemish separatists, the New Flemish Alliance have been an integral part of the on-off negotiations:
Today’s blockage is unlike previous ones in that an avowedly separatist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has for the first time become dominant in Flanders. Led by Bart de Wever, a charismatic bruiser, the N-VA’s appeal stems precisely from popular exasperation with the messy, unsatisfying compromises of the older political groups. It wants a decisive shift of powers to Flanders, and makes little secret of its wish to see Belgium “evaporate” within the EU.
Charlemagne in last week's Economist, however, points out the dangers inherent in the N-VA's apparent (more on that later) desire to split the nation along ethno-linguistic lines:

Changing national borders only rarely resolves nationalist and ethnic disputes. Where communities overlap, tolerance, minority rights, autonomy and cross-border co-operation are better democratic tools. Take Brussels. If Flanders breaks away from Belgium, could Brussels, officially bilingual but overwhelmingly Francophone, leave Flanders? Indeed, this conundrum offers the best hope that, in the end, Flemings and Walloons will live together somehow. Splitting a city is harder than breaking up a university—luckily for Belgium, and perhaps for Europe.
"For Europe" because of the number of the possible influence on the still potentially explosive ethno-nationalist conflicts which could erupt, not only in the Balkans, but also within the EU's own eastern borders. Incidently, the university he is referring to is the one in Leuven where in 1968,  to "Flemish students’ cries of Walen Buiten (“Walloons Out”), the French-speaking bit of the university was ejected."

Most right-thinking people (you'd hope anyway) would want to avoid such similar cultural cleansing taking place in the Belgium of 2011 and curiously enough it's the leader of N-VA himself who has given the most optimistic sign in an interview on Saturday that there won't be a repeat:
"I avoid speaking about this scenario," said Bart de Wever, who heads the largest party in the Flemish north.

He was responding to a question by La Libre Belgique about whether it was "time to negotiate a divorce" between the country's French- and Dutch-speaking regions.

"Everybody thinks I want this, but I think it's not good because we're going to lose our prosperity if we launch into an adventure in which nobody knows how it will end," he said.

He likened bilingual capital Brussels, a largely francophone city located in Flemish territory, to the glue binding the two regions. The fate of areas on its periphery is among the sticking points in the current crisis.
Whether this new conciliatory approach is genuine ( on Friday, Flemish parties also ridiculed a call by a francophone leader for a national unity government, with a leading N-VA politician suggesting he may have drunk too much!) or merely tactics in the "longer war" is obviously open to question but you couldn't really have wished for a better justification for keeping the country united.

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