Belgium: a kingdom in crisis

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Poor King Albert.

Belgium’s 76-year-old monarch spent most of 2010 in a fruitless search for a government that could hold his fractious kingdom together, and the advent of 2011 has brought little relief for his highness.

After 207 days of political stalemate, the latest political deal to save Belgium bit the dust on Wednesday, heightening fears that this new year could be the last for the troubled North Sea nation.

Belgium has limped along without a fully functioning government since elections on June 13, when a nationalist party seeking independence for the country’s Dutch-speaking North emerged as the country’s biggest political force.

Almost seven months of negotiations to persuade the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) to join a federal government with parties from the French-speaking South have gotten nowhere.

The fifth successive mediator appointed by the king to find a solution handed in his resignation Thursday after his much-anticipated compromise proposal was rejected by the NVA and another Flemish party.

“There’s insufficient good will for us to continue the negotiations,” said the royal mediator, Johan Vande Lanotte, a veteran Flemish socialist politician, after leaving the Royal Palace.

Newspapers on either side of the linguist divide competed to sum up the national mood.

“The End,” groaned the headline in the daily Gazet Van Antwerpen. “Hopeless,” said Het Laatse Nieuws, another Flemish daily. “Deadlock,” cried De Standaard’s front-page top.

A leading French-language tabloid left its political pages blank in protest.

“Faced with the negotiators’ inability, their sterile soundbites and secret meetings, faced with the shattered trust and this monumental mess, we took a symbolic decision not to add any more useless waffling on the issue,” explained an editorial from journalist Stephane Tassin in La Derniere Heure.

Without an agreement in sight, the lame duck government of caretaker Prime Minister Yves Leterme will stay in power indefinitely. Its powers are constitutionally limited to handling day-to-day affairs rather than launching new policy initiatives.

Doubts that it will be able to make tough economic decisions to reduce the country’s burgeoning public debt are generating fear that Belgium could join the likes of Ireland and Greece on the edge of a financial precipice. European Union forecasts show Belgium’s debt rising to over 100 percent of gross domestic product in 2011, placing it fourth behind Greece, Italy and Ireland on the eurozone’s sovereign debt ranking.

The political instability has also raised questions about Brussels’ role as host to the headquarters of the EU and NATO.

French-speakers increasingly believe that NVA leader Bart de Wever is deliberately sabotaging the efforts to form a national government in order to boost his separatist agenda by showing that Belgium has become impossible to govern. De Wever denies the accusation, saying that he’s no revolutionary secessionist.

“I’m not working for the immediate end of Belgium,” he told the German magazine Der Spiegel, last month. “I don’t have to do that, because Belgium will eventually evaporate of its own accord … the nation of Belgium has no future in the longterm.”

In return for joining a government in the nation that he calls the “sick man” of Europe, De Wever demands major concessions from the country’s French-speakers.

He wants to cut the transfer of funds from prosperous Flanders to the francophone region of Wallonia and the capital Brussels, which is officially bilingual, but mainly French-speaking. The Flemish nationalists also want their own justice system and social security system. They seek to roll back language rights enjoyed by a large French-speaking minority that lives in Flemish suburbs of the capital.

Ruled for centuries as part of the Spanish, Austrian, French or Dutch empires, Belgium emerged as an independent nation in 1830. Initially united against outside rule, the 6 million Dutch-speakers of Flanders and the 4 million Francophones of Wallonia and Brussels have grown steadily apart.

From political parties to bus networks, schools and universities to road maintenance, most aspects of national life are divided along linguistic lines.

In tough economic times, De Wever’s party has exploited long-standing dissatisfaction among Flemish voters over the flow of federal funding to the poorer French-speaking regions.

The country's imminent breakup is, however, not certain. If they want to divorce, the Flemings and Walloons will have to decide what to do about Brussels. The capital is surrounded by Flemish territory and plays a vital role in the Flemish economy, but its inhabitants are overwhelmingly French-speakers with little taste for integration into an independent Flanders.

Until a solution is found for the future of the city, which calls itself the capital of Europe, the Belgians will be tied together and King Albert II will be forced to continue his search for a politician who can govern the kingdom.