x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

You thought Iraq was a mess? Just visit poor little Belgium

Belgium may not have a proper government in place, but that seems to matter little in practical terms for the average citizen.

Not so long ago in French novelty shops, it was possible to buy the "Belgian coffee mug". Its handle was on the inside.

Such jokes, suggesting backwardness on the part of the intended targets, are not restricted to Franco-Belgian banter. Everyone has heard gags highlighting alleged Irish dullness; similar jibes are even aimed by natives of one Irish county (Cork) at those of another (Kerry).

But on yesterday's first anniversary of Belgium's eccentric experiment of trying to get along without a proper government, it was tempting to think we should not be bashing heads together, just waving the inside-handle mugs in the faces of the Belgian body politic.

How, after all, can anyone dislike a country represented in popular culture by the adorable sleuth Hercule Poirot, one of Hollywood's great leading ladies (Audrey Hepburn) and the immensely influential singer-songwriter Jacques Brel? Sadly, that simple question has an equally simple answer: Poirot was created by an English author, Agatha Christie; Hepburn was really Anglo-Dutch; and some people probably think Brel was French.

Belgium is indeed in a sorry mess. On June 13 last year, the electorate divided along classic lines between the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish community. The nationalist N-VA party was the largest in the Flemish north, the socialists triumphed in Wallonia.

The outcome left no scope for a viable coalition and the country - all 34,000 square kilometres of it - has been ruled for a year by the unelected caretaker administration of a prime minister who, perhaps for the best, has a French name, Yves Camille Désiré Leterme, but is of Flemish stock.

In February, Belgium edged past Iraq to establish a new record of 250 days for a country being devoid of its own government, and one view of that might well be that Iraq's recent history of conflict gave it rather more excuse.

And the days are still being notched up. To the mischievous mind, it sounds almost like an interesting exercise in trying out anarchy as means of governance. Yet oddly enough, Mr Leterme and his flock of lame ducks seem to know roughly how to run a country that may have only 11 million citizens but is deemed important enough to house the headquarters for the European Union and Nato.

During the stalemate, Belgium has managed to reduce its deficit and agreed to commit air power to the UN-backed operation to counter Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's suppression of rebellion in Libya.

But even the current Miss Belgium senses the need to end an impasse that was preceded by one governmental crisis after another. The tone may owe something to astute publicists, but the words hardly seem too far off the mark. "Belgium is beautiful," Justine de Jonckheere, 19 and Flemish, told the newspaper Le Soir. "But I must admit the country has problems. Ministers hold endless meetings to reach an understanding, but never do. They need to put a little water in their wine.''

Will a teenage beauty queen's rebuke be sufficient to concentrate minds and produce a compromise everyone can live with? No one is holding their breath, not least because poor Ms de Jonckheere's election drew accusations of pro-Flemish favouritism from Walloon contestants.

Only last month, the Brussels public transport authority briefly banned songs in both French and Dutch for fear of exacerbating tension. The decision was quickly overturned by the makeshift administration but speaks volumes for the sense of communal misunderstanding that exists.

Reports from Brussels suggest that if the latest opinion poll soundings are to be believed, two-thirds of Belgians feel the country can survive the crisis without being broken up. "We have an awkward democracy, which is quite conflict prone," Carl Devos, professor of political science at Ghent University, told the British newspaper The Guardian. "If you don't have a national identity, everything is defined as them and us. Belgian problems don't exist: it's only French and Flemish problems."

With public services largely in the hands of regional authorities, the failure of national politics has not led to the breakdown of normal life. For the average Belgian, the absence of coherent government seems to matter little in practical terms.

The harder it becomes to see where agreement could be found to end feuding between the Flemish and the Walloons, the more it appears that the non-government of Belgium is destined to continue for some time to come.

Colin Randall is the former executive editor of The National and writes regularly from France