Belgium's complex web of democracy
- 29 September 2014
Politics in Belgium is never simple.
In fact it's a Rubik's cube of parliamentary complexity.
As Britain embarks on a wide-ranging debate about devolution in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum on independence, is the Belgian route a good one to follow?
Fifty years ago this small country with a population of just over 11 million people was a unitary state with a single parliament and a single government.
Now it is a rather bewildering federation with two levels of devolution: parliaments (and governments) based on geographical regions, as well as parliaments (and governments) based on communities bound together by language and culture.
"The whole Belgian state structure is complicated," admits Regis Dandoy of Brussels University, "it's almost unique in the world".
"The pluses are that these regions and communities are closer to the citizens - it's government that looks like you.
"The problems are that people get confused about who does what, they get lost in the system, and politicians have to bargain all the time."
Who is responsible?
If, for example, you're a Belgian citizen who lives in the eastern town of Eupen - close to the German border - whom do you call when you want to contact your MP?
The federal parliament (in Brussels) controls issues such as foreign policy or justice on your behalf; the regional parliament of Wallonia (in Namur) oversees large areas of economic and environmental policy; and the local German-speaking community parliament (in Eupen itself) looks after education and culture.
And if that isn't complicated enough, many responsibilities are shared.
"Here we represent not even one per cent of the population of Belgium," says Myriam Pelzer, spokeswoman for the German-speaking parliament.
"But we are a distinct community, and we have legislative power, and it works."
There is certainly an argument that Belgium's hybrid solution has kept a country together that might otherwise have drifted apart.
But with support for Flemish separatism on the rise, does the current system enjoy broad popular consent?
"Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's annoying and sometimes it's just a little strange," says the Flemish comedian Bert Kruismans.
"In 2010-2011 we didn't have a (federal) government for more than 540 days because the politicians couldn't agree. No problem - the other governments just kept going."
But there is a price to be paid for having so many parliaments and governments - administration and bureaucracy. Lots of it.
There is no such thing as a perfect system.
"Here in Brussels everyone works for an administration," Mr Kruismans says with a chuckle.
"Or in a pub."