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Two fractious Belgiums: a rudderless country is under growing strain

Two fractious Belgiums: a rudderless country is under growing strain
By Sarah Laitner in Brussels
updated 10:12 p.m. ET Nov. 21, 2007

When playing the somewhat dismissive game of naming 10 famous Belgians, René Magritte is a dependable answer. Now, amid fears that Belgium might split, some of his countrymen are turning to the surrealist painter to find the meaning of their weary nation.
Graffiti images of the Belgian flag above the words, "This is not a country" - a take on Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" - are just one sign of the tensions.
Belgium, divided between Flanders, its wealthy Dutch-speaking north, and francophone Wallonia in the south, has chugged along without a new federal government for a record 165 days. Since elections in June, the bickering parties in a centre-right would-be coalition have failed to form an administration.

The main dispute is over calls by the Flemish majority for more self-rule. The wrangling across the language divide has renewed concerns that the country might break up along its linguistic fault lines.
Who cares? So far, the impasse has barely affected ordinary Belgians. To foreigners who lampoon the country and pass through it to reach its bigger neighbours, the scrap is arcane. The fact that Yves Leterme, prime minister designate, last year branded Belgium an accident of history and a facetious citizen tried recently to sell the country on Ebay only added to a sense of farce. 
But the travails highlight fears that a tradition of compromise underpinning Belgium's complex political system is fraying. In parts of the EU, the public identifies more and more with its region. As a result, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have secured more powers within the UK and new authorities have been conferred to Spanish, Italian and French local levels. Montenegro declared independence last year and the next addition to Europe's list of micro-states may be Kosovo.

A Belgian official says: "In a lot of EU member states there is alienation towards the Union and national governments, because people think that the decision-making has become too complex." He adds: "We will have a general movement in countries, giving more power to local and regional authorities. In that way, Belgium is a laboratory for what's to come." 
Belgium, which provides the European Union with its capital, has survived while other patchwork countries such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union have bitten the dust. However, Caroline Sägesser, analyst at Crisp, a Brussels-based centre for sociopolitical research, says: "Government-forming talks are often lengthy in Belgium. But the fact that these negotiations are so long shows that it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach a compromise after each federal election."

The country was established in an 1830 revolution against union with the Netherlands and, until about 50 years ago, Flanders was an agrarian backwater while Wallonia enjoyed supremacy, its people dominating the political and economic elites. 
But free-market Flanders has surged ahead to become the country's economic powerhouse and its calls for independence have grown, while Walloons tend to be staunch supporters of the federal state. A hoax show last year by the francophone public television broadcaster, claiming that Flanders had declared independence and Belgium no longer existed, sparked panic among some in Wallonia.
Many French-speaking Belgians have recently draped the black, yellow and red flag of the country on their homes to show their support. 
As a nation it is far from unique in having mutually antagonistic regions: examples range from Canada to Cyprus. But Belgium, once a buffer state that was swept up in both world wars, is a supposed symbol of European unity. Yet in the country that hosts the EU's headquarters, the gap between its communities is stark. Walloons and Flemings watch different television, attend separate universities and have their own versions of each political party.

Tintin (the cartoon character is known in Dutch as Kuifje - "little quiff"), moules frites, beer and marriages that take place across the linguistic divide are among the few common reference points among the 10m Belgians. As Pierre Kroll, Wallonia's best-known satirical cartoonist, told a magazine this month: "How can you love a blurred photo? You never see Belgium. You don't know who it is."
The biggest division is economic. Powered by its steel and coal sectors, southern Wallonia rose early to industrial and linguistic dominance. But it lost much of its heavy industry, leaving the Flemings to prop up the south with what is now an estimated €6bn ($8.9bn, £4.3bn) annual handout. The transfer, equivalent to about €2,000 for each Walloon, angers those who view the Walloons as lazy and unable to show results from the money they receive.

Kris Peeters, head of the Flemish region, says diplomatically: "The main concern among Flemings is that not all funds are used in all parts of the country in the same efficient way. People in Flanders want to make sure that there is good use of the funds."
Flanders' far stronger economy is thanks in part to its ports and chemical industry as well as more vigour among small and medium-sized enterprises. The region has less than half Wallonia's nearly 11 per cent unemployment rate. Politically, too, the two communities are split. Wallonia was a Socialist stronghold for decades, although the party has recently been battered by corruption scandals. Flemish nationalism was compromised by associations with Nazism and Flemings traditionally back the Christian Democrats (the separatist Vlaams Belang lost ground in the June election).
A complex political system that leaves politicians playing to their language groups only increases the sense of regional division. Mr Leterme, 47, who is half Walloon but a Flemish Christian Democrat, triumphed in the election by calling for greater regional autonomy on tax and employment policy. Francophones were unable to thwart him. 
Roman Catholicism, which united the two groups and led to their breakaway from the Netherlands, no longer has such cohesive powers in the face of increased secularism. Even the monarchy, viewed as more comfortable speaking French than Dutch, fails to unify fully.

For all this, a united Belgium is thought likely to lumber on. Walloons and Flemings may often be strangers to each other but still see common ties. André Bergen, Flemish chief executive of KBC, one of the country's biggest banks, says: "It is much easier to define what is different about us than what we have in common. But we do share a way of living and a history."
Each group has a distinct identity and neither allies completely with its linguistic counterpart in France or the Netherlands. Bill Bryson, the American writer, noted on a visit to Belgium several years ago: "The Flemings can't stand the Walloons, and the Walloons can't stand the Flemings but when you talk to them a little you realise that what holds them together is an even deeper disdain for the French and the Dutch."
Ms Sägesser, of Crisp, adds: "Belgium came into being out of a refusal of its people to live under either the French or Dutch. If nothing else, this political impasse shows us what we do not want to be."
The country has already dismembered much of the federal state, becoming a complex blend of regions and language communities with six parliaments. That said, Belgium clearly has scope for further devolution. Only 23 per cent of public spending is disbursed by the regional authorities, with 62 per cent still coming from the federal government. As for tax revenues, only 4 per cent is actually raised regionally. The rest is redistributed by the centre.

Perhaps the biggest hurdles to a break-up are the high national debt and how to resolve the status of Brussels itself. For now, though, with regional administrations having much power, it is largely business as usual. Guy Verhofstadt, the outgoing Liberal prime minister, remains in office. Social security benefits are paid, the trains run and the country's famed bureaucracy steams on unabated.
The lack of a new government even suits some, as the caretaker administration is unable either to levy new taxes or pursue big new policies. 
Frank Lierman, chief economist at Dexia Bank, says: "The political impasse has not had a significant effect on the Belgian economy so far. We are extremely lucky belonging to the eurozone, because there is no pressure on the currency or interest rates." He adds: "That lack of pressure could be playing in the minds of politicians trying to find a solution to the political problems."
However, the biggest moment of crisis in the negotiations could also contain the seeds of a solution, some officials say. The coalition talks were temporarily halted this month after Flemish politicians for the first time broke an unwritten agreement, using their parliamentary majority in a vote against the francophones.

If given final backing, the move would strip thousands of francophones living in Flemish suburbs around Brussels of the right to vote for French-speaking politicians in the capital. But although it was initially viewed as a sign of Flemish aggression, some Belgian media have since accused the five-party intended coalition of a stitch-up. 
In the event, it allowed Mr Leterme to act tough to his independence-minded audience. Meanwhile, the francophones were able to express outrage before using a legal measure to kick the vote into a deep freeze and resume the coalition talks.
One influential Belgian official says: "In France, there would have been revolution by now in a similar situation. But a deal will be done here, with some minor shift in competencies. It is not a huge debate among the population, especially in Flanders." The official adds: "Belgians are very pragmatic. They are not really chauvinistic. A break-up would take years of negotiations and I'm not sure you'd find a majority for that in a referendum, even in Flanders."

Foreign onlookers might take comfort in that view. A split would send a worrying message to some in the EU and could bolster other separatist groups. It would show that an old compromise system that had held together groups of different persuasions no longer worked in a country at the heart of the Union.

The majority of Belgians live in Flanders, where Dutch is spoken. The northern region has a population of 6m, compared with about 3m in Wallonia, the poorer francophone south. Parties from both must be represented in the federal government.
Brussels, Belgium's capital, is officially a bilingual region. However, most of its 1m inhabitants are French-speaking. A small German-language community exists in the east of the country.
Belgium enacted constitutional changes in 1993 that brought a transformation from a highly centralised state to one with three levels of government: federal, regional and linguistic community. 
Federal elections took place on June 10 but the groups in the would-be centre-right coalition have so far failed to form a government. In the meantime, Guy Verhofstadt, outgoing Liberal prime minister, remains in office as caretaker.
Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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