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.
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De Wever's passion for a monolingual Flanders is criticized as paradoxical in a Europe already multilingual, and where Arab, German, French, Turkish, and African populations are ever more mixed in places like downtown Brussels. But if that's true, it's not sinking in.Skip to next paragraph
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In June elections, de Wever won an unheard-of 30 percent across Flanders, enough to put his party in first place in a fractious field. No self-avowed nationalist had ever polled more than a few percent in Belgium.
'We can't live together'
More deeply, what de Wever managed to do was legitimize for the first time the idea of separation among the Flemish mainstream. As confidence in traditional parties fell, he stepped in with some "honest" Flemish straight talk: We can't live together; the Flemish-Wallonianmarriage is over; we are Mars and Venus, and the sooner we accept it, the easier things will go; there are at least six nations smaller than Flanders in Europe.
De Wever refused to be prime minister and he now avoids open talk of "separatist adventures" which, as a conservative, he opposes. Yet he does openly and often call Belgium "a failed nation," and in December told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that "Belgium will evaporate of its own accord."
"De Wever can't be the prime minister of a country he wants to split," says Karel Lanno, head of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "I understand Wallonia's fears. But Wallonia should look at the example of Slovakia. Slovakia has worked its way up." Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic in a "velvet divorce," becoming independent on Jan. 1, 1993.
Since August, de Wever has conducted fruitless talks with Wallonia's Socialists. At first, analysts felt his lack of experience and delay tactics would see him crash and burn politically. But if anything, his popularity in Flemish polls has steadily increased.
Currently de Wever wants the Francophones to give, in writing, a plan for a "confederal" Belgium that would reduce fiscal transfers to the south, before a government is formed. Wallonians, however, see confederation as a fatal step toward divorce. They oppose it and want to form a government before talks on de Wever's proposals. Neither side appears willing to bend.
"De Wever now constantly drives home the point that the state is dysfunctional," says Pieter Lagrou, a political scientist at the Free University in Brussels. "In the current climate, every time he says it makes it more true."
Culture wars in the suburbs
For a Francophone perspective, one can drive 15 miles south of Brussels to Rhode-Saint-Genese (or, as Flemish signs have it, Sint-Genesius-Rode). It is a charming suburb of parks and greenery, and has a French majority in a Flemish zone. It is one of six towns that 1963 laws guaranteed equal protection for language groups, making it a destination for affluent Francophones from Brussels. Still, the culture war is ever present.
The mayor of Rhode-Saint-Genese, Myriam Delacroix-Rolin, is a tall, striking woman who speaks in careful paragraphs. She became mayor in 1989 but says recent years have become a nightmare of new rules aimed at making life unpleasant for French-speakers. Her list of grievances is long: Flemish enterprises buy up newly emptied apartments and won't sell to French-speakers. New policies target housing, schools, and sports that involve the French language. Flemish children can't go to French schools and investigators now ask children what magazines their parents read, to catch violators. Public libraries with more than 25 percent non-Dutch books are denied funding. French-language schoolteachers must pass a rigorous test in Dutch. And so on.