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.
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.
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.
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.
"For the Flemish, the main idea is a birthright of the soil, a claim on territory and the right to control it," says Ms. Delacroix-Rolin. "For the Francophones, the issue is the universal rights they are entitled to."
"The aim now is not simply to force us to speak Dutch, but for French to leave," she continues. "The majority do learn Dutch. I'm perfectly fluent in both languages; the entire city hall staff is bilingual. But as rights are removed year after year, it is clear that even if we are all bilingual, that would not be enough, because we are still not culturally Flemish. I've been mayor for 22 years. But I'm no longer brought into decisions. When decisions are made, I read it in the newspaper."
The rules stem from Flemish interpretations of federal laws adopted in 1994, according to Willy Fautre, head of Human Rights Without Frontiers in Brussels. Francophones argue that the Flemish can't reinterpret laws to suit their interests. But Mr. Fautre says the 1994 federal changes "allowed for interpretation … that has emphasized and strengthened the separate identity question."
Wallonia was not always the underdog. For most of Belgian history, Francophone elites ran the country. Flanders was poor and rural. Wallonia was a steel and coal capital of Europe. Francophone aristocrats in the 19th century controlled the port of Antwerp in Flanders. In World War I, Flemish foot soldiers took orders from French-speaking officers they often didn't understand, resulting in great casualties. One result was a Flemish and anti-French pacifist movement. The initials of its motto, AVV-VVK (Everything for Flanders – Flanders for Christ), appeared on the masthead of the leading Flemish daily, de Standaard, from 1918 to 1999.
After World War II, the fortunes of the two communities reversed. Flanders began to rise in the global economy, and Wallonia receded into rust-belt status. A drive from the port of Antwerp through Brussels to Wallonia feels like a drive through three different countries.
Trapped by 'the rules of the game'
For Brussels' cosmopolitans – and many younger people here – the standoff is a dark time. Few seem to see a way out and the Constitution, which many call incoherent, does not offer clear solutions. Political figures seem trapped by "the rules of the game" and stuck in petty squabbles, says Mr. Lagrou. "The rules must be changed, and no one sees how to do this, and so we feel trapped in a system of degeneration. Belgium needs a new Constitution and a new federal system … but how?" he wonders.
Just north of Brussels are charming Flemish suburbs with French minorities. Dutch is the only official language here. Down a side street of one town is a tile shop belonging to a Francophone who didn't want his name published. He's owned the shop most of his life and wants his son to take over, but he's pessimistic. He's also clearly spooked. Last year, as sales fell, he put small, bilingual business cards on his counter in hopes of getting more business from both communities.
A week after the cards appeared, the police came and gave him 24 hours to remove them. "They were not friendly," he says of the police.
Now he feels as though others in the city look at him differently, he says, and petty differences seem larger. "It's sad, it's sad, it's sad," he says. "The police won't speak French to us. They act like they don't understand anything we say, and they've become rude and hostile. But when they go to the Greek fish seller, I hear them speaking French. I don't know what is happening to us."