Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thurs 2 Sept - The Political Impasse

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.

2 comments:

  1. I think the South needs to admit there is a problem with the unemployed. There are so many, and it is far too easy to milk the system for years and years on end! Belgium is one of the only nations in the world where unemployment benefits don't dry up or have a time limit, which is absolutely ridiculous in that it does nothing to motivate people to find work, and depletes the government. It's already badly policed too, as far as trying to locate the fraudsters, and do you know that some socialist politicos said before the last election that they were thinking of doing away with the inspectors altogether... to save money?

    There are so many ways the system is so very broken here, and what's sad is that many in the South are reluctant to admit that the way they live and are governed right now by the socialists is completely unsustainable. Even those who work and who know the system has tons of problems have some unrealistic ideas about how they should be entitled to this benefit or that, or how they will one day 'take advantage of the system in this way'. To me it's really shocking to hear what seem like otherwise mature, properly employed adults talk like this. It's like hearing about a grown man who comes home to visit his parents and simultaneously steal from their wallets.

    Honestly, I think it'd be a good wake-up call for many Walloons to be left to their own devices. It's only like that the blinders'll come off and they'll be forced to (fully) acknowledge the mess they've made by having such a short-sighted view. Rarrrr. Lol, It bothers me, can you tell? :)

    PS - Bart was the préformateur (the one who consults all the parties to see if it seems it might be possible to form a government,) Elio was the formateur (the guy who actually has to try and cobble the coalition together.)

    This bothers me too, these positions of préformateur and formateur. Why, after the public has spoken do we need all this pussyfooting about? Taxpayers pay the salaries of the politicians, and the taxpayers have given the "seats in house" with their votes. I say get to work. Even if it doesn't work for long, at the very least a few bills get passed and instead of most of the politicians getting paid to do very little during this period of time (sounds a little like unemployment here,) at the very least they're in there, working, or trying to make it work.

    This of course is my relatively ignorant non-Belgian-perspective. But at this point after living on the inside for this long, I honestly think the country might be better off if someone just invaded and imposed a new and different governmental system and players. You know? Bit of a Tabula rasa, as it were.

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  2. Hey Jessica,

    I'm of the view (possibly, ignorant) that Belgium would be better-off if it split in two. I just can't see what holds it together. The two regions clearly don't interact. No one from the north seems to work in the south and vice versa.

    I agree with pretty much everything you've said about Wallonia. I'm all for the state helping out when times are hard and people are out of work, and I certainly don't subscribe to the tough love meted out to the unemployed by the Yanks, but there's just no incentive to work if you're always being bailed out by the state.

    Huge, ingrained, cultural, problems. No wonder the north get fed up. But, isn't some of this cyclical? The south used to be the powerhouse of Belgium.

    Thanks for putting me straight about 'préformateur' v 'formateur.'

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