Belgium 'a boat that will sink anyway'

By Jonty Bloom
The World Tonight

Image caption,
A mass striptease took place as a symbolic protest demanding an end to Belgium's political impasse

Could Belgium's economic future hang in the balance as it has been without a government for more than 250 days?

On the one hand the political impasse does not seem to be doing the country any harm. Taxes are still being collected, rubbish bins are still being emptied and schools remain open.

Figures from the Central Bank show that consumer confidence in the country is strong, reaching a level in February last seen in 2007.

So does being without a government really matter? Perhaps not in day-to-day matters, as the state just keeps rolling along, but in other ways it does.

Take Belgium's huge level of government borrowing, currently running at about 100% of the country's annual economic output.

That is the third largest amount in the EU and has led to some very worrying comparisons with Spain and Portugal, and even the Irish Republic and Greece.

Those comparisons are embarrassing for Belgium not least because the other affected EU countries have at least started to try to put their houses in order.

Media caption,
Belgium's long wait for a government

The Belgian king has asked the caretaker government to look at cutting spending.

But economist Carsten Brzeski at ING Bank in Brussels says it was a disaster waiting to happen.

"There is no way out. If you have a government debt of 100% of GDP and an ageing population you need to do something. You cannot postpone taking radical measures until infinity," he says.

However without a strong national government it is difficult to see the country introducing real and painful cuts to spending and introducing the higher taxes necessary to seriously reduce the level of debt.

Language divide

Belgium's political parties have been trying to form a government since elections on 13 June 2010.

But the prospect of forming the kind of strong government necessary to force through tough reforms is looking increasingly unlikely.

Belgium is now almost totally split on linguistic lines between the rich Flemish-speaking north and the poorer French-speaking south.

Each area has its own regional parliaments and parliaments for each language group as well. The result has been the death of nationwide political parties and endless battles over language.

Linkebeek is a small town on the outskirts of bilingual Brussels. Originally Flemish-speaking and still part of the province of Flanders, it has now been populated by French-speaking commuters from the centre of the capital looking for a better quality of life. But they want to speak French.

The town's mayor Damien Thiery says it is causing real problems.

"We are obliged to speak in Flemish in all our official meetings.

"And if we speak one word in French then the town council meetings are officially cancelled by the Flemish authorities."

That might sound like a farce but it goes to the heart of the problem.

In Belgium the linguistic division has become so firmly established that the French and Flemish-speaking communities have almost nothing to do with each other and refuse to compromise.

Image caption,
Student protesters dress as a lion, the symbol of Flanders and a cock, from the Walloon region

Author and blogger Marcel Sel fears the country is doomed.

"I compare it to the Titanic, the last elections were the scratch when the Titanic hit the iceberg and after that there is nothing you can do to make it better... the boat will sink anyway," he says.

Mark Reynebeau, a political columnist with the Flemish newspaper De Standaard, says splitting the nation up along linguistic divisions is just too complicated to ever be a reality.

"I think it is quite impossible, if only for practical reasons," he says.

"Belgium is so intertwined, especially with Brussels in the middle, that it is virtually impossible from a technical point of view to split it."

With both the French and Flemish speakers claiming bilingual Brussels as their own, it might be impossible to agree how to split the country.

The trouble is it also seems virtually impossible to agree on how to form a national government either.

Hear more on The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 at 2200 GMT on Friday, 25 February or listen again on the BBC iPlayer.

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