The more you learn and read about Belgian politics, the more you realise how utterly dysfunctional it is. The system is bankrupt. Stalled. The country pulled in different directions: the Socialists of Wallonia who want to preserve Belgium as it is: complete with its generous welfare system, overwhelmingly state-funded public services, and a desire to keep Belgium together as one country. Although I'm not sure even they believe they can transfer this north of Brussels in the minds of the Flemish electorate, but they still like to put the case for a united Belgium. And then you have the nationalists of Flanders. Desperate for more and more powers so that Flanders becomes an even more autonomous region. It is argued that they won't yet brazenly shout the case for the separation of the country this instant because they know many in Flanders are still hesistant and uneasy about this, with the South outrightly opposed. But, the long term goal of most parties in Flanders is the end of Belgium.
As far as the Flemish nationalists are concerned, a disproportionate amount of their taxes goes towards funding the work-shy, benefit-happy south, of which roughly 14% are unemployed. Although this figure is actually rather low when compared to some parts of Wallonia where it's not uncommon to find unemployment rates of up to 30% in some towns and cities. I've always been told that in Mons the figure stands at between 25-27%, and remember, Mons is one of the more desirable places in the south.
In comparison, unemployment in Flanders is about half what it is Wallonia. The Walloon politicians will counteract this argument about the south living off the north, by saying that there are more pensioners in the north who require a larger slice of state aid in helping to pay for their pensions. I'm not sure I particularly buy this argument. The pensioners are most likely people who have worked their whole life, paid their taxes, and are therefore entitled to receive their pensions. Spending years on state benefits, whether justified or not, doesn't exactly help the public purse.
In Wallonia, there is a generation of people out of work who remain so because it's far too easy to. But the rebuttal would go something along the lines of: isn't it the job of society as a whole to care for its most vulnerable and needy? For those who are either too sick to work, or unable to find any. And this help is equally available to those in the north. Personally, I'm not sure it's either physically or mentally healthy to be able to shun work so easily, knowing that the state will always come to your aid. Of course state benefits don't last forever, and there are steps taken to get people back into work, but there are also those who will have, valid or not, excuses as to why they can't work, long term.
This is of course without even getting into the lingusitic divide which I've mentioned before: the Dutch-speaking north and the French-speaking south. I still find it confusing as to know whether it's right to say the north speak Dutch or Flemish. Flemish is officially a dialect of Dutch and some people tell me that the two have many differences, whilst others say that they're virtually indistinguishable. I'm going to stick with saying they speak Dutch.
The main reason for the general election back on June 13th centres around strong disagreements over the functions of a Brussels district, Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. Like all parts of Brussels, it is officially bilingual. But, the local Flemish authorities want to split it into two, along lingustic lines. They have also started to refuse publishing their own local government material (whether in written pamphlets or on the web) in French. And now some landlords in the Flemish area have refused to allow non-Dutch speakers the right to rent or buy property there. Sounds like discrimination to me. This naturally had an impact on politics at the centre, with the liberal (and Flemish) Open VLD party quitting the coalition government in protest at its inability (for which, read incompetence) to resolve the issue. Merely, a microcosm of something bigger.
And so after Elio Di Rupo, leader of the victorious la Parti Socaliste in the south (and mayor of Mons) and Bart de Wever (what a great name), leader of the Flemish N-VA, a separatist party, and most successful party in the north, emerged as the 'winners' in their respective regions after the general election, they were charged with coming together to form a coalition government, involving several other parties from across the two regions. This was back on June 13th (a great piece in The Economist, from its previous European correspondant, neatly sums up the ramifications of the election result).
And today, after weeks of wrangling, political bidding and supposed compromises, Di Rupo, the man given the (thankless) task of bringing a new government together (they call him Le Préformateur, which I'm told is a term unique to Belgium, presumably meaning 'chief negotiator' or mediator) told the King of Belgium that he had failed in his role and that a new government for Belgium is still a long way off.
Naturally, the Francophone parties blamed the Flemish ones for refusing to agree to their 'generous' terms of compromise, and the Flemish ones in turn responded by saying that the Francophones just don't understand their northern counterparts, both literally and metaphorically, I would guess.
And so, it's now up to two new politicans to try and sort this mess out.