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Keeping It Together

Matthew Kelly
The Sorrows of Belgium. Liberation and Political Reconstruction, 1944-1947, by Martin Conway, Oxford University Press, 432 pp, £68, ISBN: 978-0199694341 Following the general election of June 2010, it took 541 days for Belgium’s politicians to form a new coalition government. Things ticked over. The rubbish was collected. Outside observers offered much wry comment. Government and politicians were proved to be as useless as everyone had always supposed. A state underpinned by sensible political principles could rely on civil servants to run things efficiently. This, of course, was rubbish. Belgium’s politicians, through the federal structures established in the last quarter of the twentieth century, continued to govern. For the eighteen months before the credit rating agencies snarled and the people expressed their impatience on the streets a caretaker national government made minor adjustments to tax and spend policies, including social security levels, established by its predecessor. Regional governments answerable to regional parliaments spent this money according to devolved competencies. In certain respects, the actions of Belgium’s political and bureaucratic elite, responsible for the peaceful transformation of Belgium’s governing structures since the 1960s, were vindicated by these processes. Belgium’s long search for a new coalition government can be seen as a crisis of politics rather than a crisis of state. Others see prime minister Elio Di Rupo’s government of December 2011 as the latest temporary fix to a more fundamental problem. Belgium, they say, is an artificial country formed for reasons of European realpolitik in the 1830s. It forces into a single state the francophone peoples of Wallonia in the south and the Dutch-speaking people of Flanders in the north. This produced a relatively functional polity that could never meaningfully be called a nation. If francophone Brussels ‑ with its significant Flemish minority ‑ was not marooned in Flanders, Belgium would have long since gone the way of Czechoslovakia. Only consociational government, which prevents majoritarian tyranny and effectively institutionalises coalition, has kept the country together. In Northern Ireland, once a failed state now merely dysfunctional, a similar system manages to accommodate the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. The prophets of Belgium’s break-up doubt if these structures will continue to reconcile the interests of competing ethnic groups. Populist Flemish nationalists like Bart De Wever, the charismatic leader of the separatist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliante (N-VA), Belgium’s largest political party, and since January 2013 mayor of Antwerp, exploit the fact that the de-industrialisation of Wallonia has left…



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