Washing Belgium’s Dirty Linen

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Sorry to bother: Are you aware that Belgium last held national elections back on June 13 of this (soon-to-terminate) year, yet it still has only caretaker politicians in charge of its national government?

You might have a recollection of that somewhere in the back of your mind (unless you yourself are Belgian, in which case the memory is a bit more prominent). Yet why should anyone really care – unless, of course, they are Belgian? Maybe not even then: the country seems to run fairly well even without a formal national government in place and, indeed, currently carries out the duties of the rotating EU presidency. There’s really no threat of any sort of violence, despite the current high levels of frustration within the Belgian political establishment.

One reason is the enormous Belgian national debt, since one of the points of forming a proper government is to come up with a team willing to take on the responsibility of making sure it gets paid back, in the right amounts and on time. But a simpler reason may simply be fascination – of the pileup-on-the-highway sort – with the sloppy, sordid mess that the government-forming process has become over these long six months (so far).

Take the latest sensation, namely the interview given two weeks ago to Der Spiegel by Bart De Wever, head of the N-VA party that is the largest in Flanders (Belgium’s northern, Dutch-speaking part) mainly by virtue of its strong separatist tendencies. “Strong” I say, but apparently not “overwhelming” in that for much of the past six months (if not now) De Wever has consented to appointment by the King as bemiddelaar, i.e. the politician officially designated to try to form a new government. As the authoritative Flemish paper De Standaard points out today, however, the venting De Wever delivered to Der Spiegel clearly shows he is about out of patience with the whole charade:

If it were possible to set the necessary reforms in one Belgian state on track, I wouldn’t stand in the way. But that is not possible. The Walloons [i.e. the French Belgians], above all the Socialists as their strongest [political] party, are blocking all meaningful reforms.

And that is hardly all. The interview is entitled “The sick man of Europe” (Europas kranker Mann), an epithet applied by De Wever himself (along with een mislukt land, “a failure of a land”) to the country in which he is an elected politician, one which for that matter he is sure “has no more long-range future.”

Since it’s apparent he operates under the assumption that no one in the French-speaking half of Belgium has bothered to take up the German language, De Wever goes freely on to reveal other tasty tidbits. Like he expects his N-VA party to be voted out of power in Flanders in the next election if it does in fact ever enter any new national government – because N-VA voters clearly never voted for that, but rather for some sort of intelligent separation process! Like he doesn’t feel he can trust King Albert II, since his sympathies so obviously lie on the side of the Walloons.

But it turns out that politicians from Wallonia actually are able to access German texts one way or another. Newscasts from Belgian radio today (yes, including those in Dutch) are crackling with their indignant French-speaking voices pointing out – with justification – how all this “hopeless” talk is about the last thing Belgian state finances need now that international bond speculators are starting to shift their jaundiced eyes from Greece, Ireland, etc. to pick out other possible sovereign-debt deadbeats.

Oh, and they also point out how outright rude De Wever is, considering the recent government-forming efforts by the current bemiddelaar, Johan Vande Lanotte – another Flemish politician, with the sort of funky Dutch/French name you can only find in Belgium, but from a different party – seem to be coming along so well. Yeah . . . right.

(BTW De Standaard also includes a link to De Wever’s Der Spiegel interview itself, and in a Dutch translation – not only because of its Dutch audience, but also since anyone who wants to read it in the original German needs an on-line subscription to access it behind Der Spiegel’s paywall!)

UPDATE: Sure enough, now we have this entry on the FT’s Alphaville blog reporting how S&P has shifted its outlook on Belgium’s sovereign debt from “stable” to “negative,” namely for the unusual reason of “political uncertainty,” i.e. no government. It further threatens a downgrade to the country’s AA+ rating if there’s no such proper government in place within six months – or if that “proper” government nonetheless seems to be ineffective in addressing the state’s worsening fiscal issues.

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