Belgium: still no new government

A caretaker administration has governed since the 2010 election. Would a referendum help?

A more complex scenario one could not concoct.  Francophone Walloons from the south and Dutch- or Flemish-speaking Flemings from the north are gripped in headlock.  The fate of Brussels, the federal and Flemish capital hangs in the balance.

A letter to the Editor of The Economist from a reader from Brussels asserted that Eurocrats had been responsible for promoting French in Brussels.  Despite the city having traditionally been Dutch-speaking, now French was the language of the majority.  He may well be right.  As the 'capital' of the European Union, French would likely be used in preference to hard-to-master Dutch, I suspect.  Another reason might be the preponderance of recent arrivals from Francophone North Africa.  Anyway, the letter-writer continued, English is increasingly spoken in the Belgian capital.

When in Brussels recently, I was told that the Flemings had chosen badly in selecting Brussels as the capital of Flanders.  I guess to them it was a matter of historical right, a bit like the Serbs maintaining that Kosovo is an historic cradle of their civilisation.  Yet time moves on, demographics shift, and modern dilemmas must be resolved.  The Walloons had chosen culturally rich Namur on the edge of the Ardennes as Wallonia's capital; German-speakers had opted for the small Roman Catholic and conservative university town of Eupen as theirs.

The impasse needs to be swiftly overcome due to Belgium's precarious position hanging on the precipice of credit downgrade and the fearful prospect of sovereign debt default.  Unpalatable decisions need to be taken to offset that possibility, and the caretaker government can't make forthright choices. 

Belgium was always a cobbled-together entity, part French, part Dutch, and a bit German.  Past great powers - Spanish, Austrians, French - have all left their legacies.  So, Belgium's language issue is nigh on unresolvable, and partition appears inevitable.  Maybe the Flemings could have chosen Antwerp as their capital, but they didn't.  Antwerp was the Belgian city of choice for the Amsterdam-headquartered Van Gogh museum - perhaps the board of that venerable institution foresaw something the Flemish did not. 

But what of the fate of Brussels: can it be the capital of an independent Flanders?  Maybe the population should vote on their preferred allegience.  A risky strategy for the Flemings, but at present the federated state of Belgium has ceased to function effectively.

Pointers exist further south in the western reaches of the Sahara.  In 1975 the Spanish transferred their phosphate-rich colony to the Mauritanians and Moroccans, despite fierce opposition from independence-seeking Sahelians in Polisario.  Four years later the Mauritanians retreated, abandoning the place to Morocco.  The Algerians welcomed Polisario fighters and their families, who set up camp in the east.  But many Sahelians remained in what Morocco had rebranded its Southern Provinces.  A 'Green March' of 35,000 unarmed Moroccans, led by King Hassan II, had crossed south over the Atlas and a repopulation of the region by Moroccans began.  A huge barrier was erected in the east to keep out Polisario, and the demographics of Western Sahara were altered out of recognition.  UN calls for a referendum have stalled, with Polisario insisting that only pre-invasion residents or their offspring should vote. 

The same could be claimed by the Flemish, I suppose, as Brussels' demographics have altered in part due to French-influenced Eurocratic meddling in their capital.  And this impasse might continue.  

Plebiscites can come to the rescue sometimes, but not always.  

It would be uncharacteristic of the EU to abandon a key plank of its desired superstate.  But Vienna would make a more appropriately located capital of a United States of Europe, I've often thought. 

There must be ways to engineer a resolution to the Brussels conundrum.  A way forward has to be found, in any event, for if it is not this irritable sore will fester indefinitely.  Belgium simply can't continue to operate as a nation with a caretaker government, first elected in 2007 and clinging on by default.  No pun intended.

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