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Belgium-- A Paradox beyond Politics - Helsinki Times

For my work, I spend around half of my time in Belgium. Few people outside this country of 10 million know much about it. Many come to visit, especially for work to Brussels, but they seldom venture beyond the European Union institutions, NATO and the airport. Those who do face a bewildering mixture of political, cultural and ethnic peculiarities.

Ask a foreigner what they know about Belgium, and the answer usually involves some of the following: beer, fries, Manneken Pis, chocolate and lace. Each of these is often readily developed into a metaphor for Belgium and the Belgians: bon vivant, slightly quirky, with a political system as intricate and complicated as a hand-crafted piece of embroidery.

Politics in Belgium is indeed unique. The last general election was held on 10 June. Three months on, the country still does not have a government. Much of the deadlock stems from the linguistic regime. Rich, Flemish-speaking Flanders and the poorer French-speaking Wallonia to the south have very different aims in the ongoing coalition-negotiations. While a significant amount of power is devolved from the federal level to the three states of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-region, the central government still has considerable authority in, for example, matters of taxation and social security.

On top of the federal structure, there is an additional administrative division (dealing for example with education) along linguistic lines: Flemish, French and German. The two Flanders? structures overlap. Wallonia on the other hand incorporates the French and German language communities. All have their separate assemblies, meaning that Brussels ? the capital of Flanders and the French Community (but not Wallonia), is home to five parliaments! These are: the European, the Belgian, Flanders, Brussels-region and the French Community. In addition, all 19 communes of Brussels have their own municipal councils.

The country is drowning in politics. Voting is obligatory, and indeed it needs to be. The system is confusing, and people seldom understand exactly what they are voting for on each level of government. The result is a curious mixture of civic activism and voter apathy.

No wonder The Economist magazine recently joined the fray and called for Belgium to be dissolved. But it had few answers for what would follow. The conventional wisdom is that Flanders could probably set itself up as an independent state relatively easily. Not so Wallonia, which many speculate would have to apply to join France. And what would happen to Brussels? Some want it set up as a European capital-state, something akin to the District of Columbia in the US. But would Flanders agree to give up its (French-speaking) capital? The list of contradictions goes on and on.

While its political system may be puzzling, Belgium is consistent in one key respect. Along with Luxembourg, it is in some way the most pro-European country in the EU. Perhaps this is not surprising for a place that houses and benefits from the business drawn in by the EU. Perhaps the willingness to delegate sovereignty up to the EU is also a symptom of fatigue with the domestic state. Whatever the truth, Belgians do have one more thing in common than the prime-minister in waiting suggested: ?the football team, the King, and some beers??. Of the six founding EU member states, only Belgium still exposes the original belief in European construction.

This passion was on display at the EU summit in June. Towards the end of negotiations, the acting Belgian prime-minister lost patience with his Dutch counterpart for what he saw as a lack of European backbone. Holland had traditionally been as strongly pro-European as its neighbour to the south, but here it was working together with Poland, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic to water down the integrationist tone of the new EU Reform Treaty.

In many ways the attack was unfair. Dutch politics and society is in flux after a triple blow dealt to the established order in the first years of the 21st century. First, there was the brief flutter to the consensual model of politics caused by the populist Pim Fortuyn. Then, the murder of film-maker Theo Van Gogh brutally exposed the racial and religious tensions that were papered over by multicultural Dutch liberalism. Finally, the clear rejection of the EU constitution in a referendum in June 2005 halted things entirely, forcing a rethink of the basic values and pillars of Dutch post-war society.

Belgium does not have such trauma to deal with and can continue to advance the European cause. Indeed, even though similar events could have occurred in Belgium, some would argue that any nascent collective soul-searching would have been stifled by the politics of the place. Something like this did in fact happen in the late 1990s after a collective expression of anger at the administrative corruption and incompetence surrounding the break-up of a paedophile ring.

It is impossible to guess how and when the situation will change. Too many people, not the least a huge bureaucratic machine, depend on the status quo. When the country finally does get a new government, it will be interesting to see if it can offer any new answers to a series of old questions.
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