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Belgium breaks Iraq’s world record for government impasse

Belgium, split between the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south, still doesn’t have a government after June elections last year. The rift may eventually cause a national divorce.

By Staff writer / March 21, 2011

Belgium is a ‘failed nation,’ Flemish nationalist Bart de Wever is heard to say often, and it ‘will evaporate of its own accord.’

Francois Lenoir/Reuters/File

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Brussels

Belgium, home of the European Union and NATO, recently logged a bizarre world record: In February it eclipsed Iraq as the nation longest unable to form a government after elections. And there doesn't appear to be any end in sight to the more than 270-day standoff that could ultimately lead to a national divorce between Belgium's two main ethnic groups, the Dutch Flemish and the French Walloons.

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This is a scenario that alarms European leaders, who are already straining to keep a deficit-challenged Europe unified – and who don't want separatists in Spain, Italy, or anywhere else to take heart from potentially destabilizing examples.

The Belgian divide between the 6.5 million Dutch-speaking Flemish in Flanders, to the north, and the 4.5 million French-speaking Walloons in Wallonia, to the south, used to be a charming joke. Not now. The two have drifted further apart. Dutch and French speakers don't connect much, or even watch the same television. Their regions enforce language laws that are polite codes for ongoing separation, especially for the Flemish. Flanders is widely seen as Europe's most conservative region, barring Bavaria in Germany; Wallonia, by contrast, is run by avowed socialists.

The issue gets little attention because prior impasses were always reconciled in midnight talks, because Belgian dynamics are complex enough to turn Middle East experts cross-eyed, and because separation never sat well in mainstream Flemish politics, where it was seen as extreme in a country where being relaxed is a national pastime.

But who would get Brussels?

Looming over all divorce scenarios is an impossible math problem: Who would get Brus­sels, which is in Flanders, but is 85 percent French-speaking?

The rise last June of a heavy-set Flemish politician, Bart de Wever, has begun to simplify some things, for better or worse.

Mr. de Wever is a "soft" nationalist. He doesn't sell hatred of Muslims or Jews the way the far-right Flemish Vlaams Belang party does. De Wever says he believes in Europe – especially in an independent Flanders.

De Wever first came to national attention in 2008 in the finals of a Flemish TV quiz show called "The Most Intelligent Person in the World." He is a "retail" politician who hits the road three or four nights a week, visiting pubs and gatherings with a message that the prosperous Dutch-speaking north should no longer underwrite social security and transfer payments to the poorer French south.

Politically, this sounds like German Chancellor Angela Merkel's rap on Mediterranean states with lax fiscal discipline, whichexpect bailouts in times of deficit crisis. It has both populist and pocketbook appeal.

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