A story that seems to have had surprisingly little coverage in the British media is the fact that for almost half a year, Belgium has had no official government. Since the elections of 10 June, no government has been able to form a working majority, despite a lot of effort from the Belgian royal family to broker a deal between rival parties.
Much of the problem stems from the fact that Belgium is a somewhat artificial nation. By the early 19th century, a large number of formerly separate micronations (the “low countries”), each with their own cultures and histories came under the rule of the House of Orange-Nassau. William of Orange united them, establishing the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. (William was also Grand Duke of Luxembourg, but the Grand Duchy was not incorporated into the Netherlands, and due to differences in inheritance laws in the two countries, the royal families of the Netherlands and Luxembourg have since diverged.)
However, his efforts to wipe out cultural differences in his new nation provoked resistance in the south. Amongst other reasons, the primarily Catholic regions of Flanders and Walloon were uncomfortable with the king’s protestant beliefs. This led to Flanders and Walloon declaring independence from the Netherlands, supported by France.
While other European powers supported the Dutch king, primarily to spite France (which had recently attacked just about every other country in Europe during the Napoleonic wars), they did little to assist the Netherlands, partly due to domestic concerns at the time, but also because they could see the advantage of having an independent state as a buffer between the powers of France and Germany.
Ever since independence though, Belgium has been a country ill at ease with itself. Flanders, in the north, is primarily Flemish-speaking (Flemish is a language almost indistinguishable from Dutch). The people of Walloon, in the south, speak mostly French; although to the south-east, there is a small German-speaking population. The Walloons have historically regarded themselves as the main generators of wealth for the country, and seen the Flemish as riding on their coat-tails, although in recent years the reverse has been the case.
Since 1980, Belgium has had a federal system, unique amongst federations in that it has parliaments with overlapping territories:
Regional parliament for Brussels
Regional parliament for Walloon
Regional parliament for Flanders
Parliament for the French community
Parliament for the Flemish community (although in practice the Flanders and Flemish parliaments are merged)
Parliament for the German-speaking community
And of course there is a federal parliament layered on top of all of those. Voting in the federal parliament tends to divide strongly along regional/linguistic lines; and with neither of the two main linguistic communities having a substantial majority over the other, it is unsurprising that the June 2007 elections ended up the way they did.
With King Albert now making ultimatums, the Belgian state has reached crisis point. It is clear that even if a last-minute deal is clinched, and a government can be formed, this would only be a temporary fix, and constitutional reform is a pressing issue.
As it’s unlikely that the pattern of voting primarily on linguistic lines will change overnight, it is probable that this will result in the shifting of power away from the federal parliament, and to the regions and communities; and perhaps the dissolution of the single Belgian state altogether.
If Belgium ceases to exist, whither Brussels? A bilingual city, no longer part of either region, it is possible that Brussels would become an independent city-state: a kind of Washington, DC for the EU.
Whatever happens, it’s sure to be interesting to watch. All eyes on Belgium for the next couple of months.