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Europe's political basket cases

Why Belgium and the Netherlands can't form governments

“It’s hard enough to form a government in the Netherlands, and that’s a normal country,” the Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever told Belgian television recently. “We’re not a normal country. We’re two very different countries.”

After months of painstaking negotiations broke down in early September, senior Francophone politicians for the first time began to acknowledge that Belgians had to contemplate a breakup of the country.

Divorce, however, would not be easy. Both sides want custody of Brussels. The city is about80 percent French-speaking, but it’s surrounded by Flemish territory and the nationalists claim it as the historic capital of Flanders.

King Albert II has asked politicians from the two main parties to resume talks, which are focusing on how to transfer more powers and tax revenues from the federal authorities to the language-based regions without the central government completely imploding.

At least politics are relatively serene in the third member of the BeNeLux region — apart from the fact that little Luxembourg (population 500,000) has gotten itself embroiled in a nasty diplomatic spat with neighboring France (population 65 million).

After the Luxembourgish member of the European Commission criticized Paris’ policy of expelling foreign Roma, one leading member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling party suggested last week that the Grand Duchy should have been divided up between France and Germany.

Thankfully for Luxembourg, Europe’s longest serving prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker (15 years in power), was able to elicit an apology from his French counterpart over Senator Philippe Marini’s assertion that “it would have been preferable … if Luxembourg did not exist.”

Perhaps there’s a lesson there for the Dutch and Belgians on the benefits of stable government if you want to punch above your weight in the world.