Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tues 22 February

Another student of mine confessed today that he has also stopped going to Flanders in protest at what he, and I know many, many other Walloons, see as the way they're treated up north. He's the third student to have admitted this to me. I now make that six Walloons who I've spoken to who feel the same way.

He was telling me how he used to take his children when they were young to the seaside regularly, but hasn't been back for a few years. He tells me of two of his colleagues who recently got back from weekend breaks in Flanders, who recall how they were refused service in a café and a restaurant as soon as the staff working there found out they were Walloons. Discrimination. No other word for it.

I wonder if the politicians are aware at just how polarised these two communities really are. I guess the Flemish nationalists and separatists must be, otherwise they wouldn't exist. They use and exploit these divisions for political gain.

Interestingly, last year, on his way out of an ice-cream parlour (I think. Sorry, can't find anything about this on the net so am writing this from memory) in the Wallonian city of Liège, a Flemish politician was punched by a local and told he wasn't welcome down here. The response of the politician was wonderful. He said he was sorry that the man felt this way, but that he loved visiting Wallonia, he loved the people, and he would continue to come to the region. Now if only this could be replicated amongst his colleagues.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Fri 18 February - And that my friends is a 'New World Record.'

Or is it. Today, as being reported all over the media, Belgium officially overtook Iraq as the country that has spent the longest period of time without a government. The press reports that Iraq's previous record of 249 days has now been beaten. But, some sources believe that the actual record is some 40 days off, at 289 days. As the BBC reports:

"Although it took 249 days before Iraq achieved an outline agreement on a government, approval was not forthcoming for another 40 days, and some have questioned whether Belgium has yet broken the dubious record."

To be honest, does it really matter? 249 days, 289 days, 2,889 days. This motley crew seem no nearer to forming a government than they were just after the general election on 13 June. Either way, Belgians decided to mark this momentous occasion by staging a series of 'celebratory' events. Several outdoor parties were held throughout the country, free chips and beer were offered, and dozens of students in Ghent kept to their promise by stripping to their underwear.

What is it with people and their need to take off their clothes in public? I put it down to peoples' desire to go back to man's roots. Removing the shackles of modernity from their backs, feeling free from the stresses of life. Something like that, anyway.

As much as I admire their very British approach to adversity, (i.e. reduce everything to humour, and just have a good laugh at yourself), I'm not sure I 100% approve. What's happening in this country is such a scandal that I get angry just writing about it. Many foreign observers have asked, quite naturally, how the hell does Belgium still function?

Well, the endless layers of bureaucracy help. They act as a buffer and allow life to continue as it always has done. It would probably take a generation to finally penetrate every sphere of federal, regional and communal government.

I used to believe that the breakup of Belgium was an inevitability. It was going to happen, maybe not now, but at some point. But, now I think I'm coming round to the view that it's its incompetent politicians and its country's baffling infrastructure that will keep this country together. In short, it'd be just too much hard work to split up.

And even if somebody, somewhere, were to start arguing that 289 days is in fact the proper world record, Belgians would probably just see this date as an excuse to have another party.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mon 7 February - Generalisms

A round up of a few things I've read over the last couple of weeks concerning Belgium, its people, and how they do things over here:

I've always suspected, but never had the stats to back it up, that the life expectancy in Flanders must be higher than Wallonia. And then along comes this (very brief) article to provide the evidence. The figures for 2009 show that Belgian men live on average until they're 77, whilst women go on until they're 82. (A recent study looking at why women in general live longer than men revealed it was simply down to the fact that men smoked more. Nothing more complicated than that. No doubt another study will soon come along with different findings).

And the key point states that Flemings live roughly 2 years longer than Walloons, which is actually less than I predicted. I expected it to be around the 5 year mark. No reason is given for this regional difference but the socially observant can easily speculate.

The Economist used its Charlemagne column to muse about Belgium's never-ending efforts to form a new government. Mischievously entitled "The Trouble with Flanders," when in fact the body of the article doesn't seek to attach blame to the north (except for the small fact that Bart de Wever's N-VA party, the Flemish separatists, were the biggest winners last June). Instead, as is widely known, Brussels is, and will always remain, the big stumbling block.

But, it was the readers' comments underneath the article that I found most fascinating. This being The Economist, you'd expect them to be made by an educated, relatively informed bunch. And for the most part they were. One comment in particular stood out. It also echoed something one of my students has said, and something I'm beginning to read more and more. It even sounds slightly ridiculous mentioning it because it seems so obvious: that the biggest divide in the country is political. Language is merely a red herring.

There are big ideological divisions within Belgium, with the north and south having very different ideas about which direction the country should be heading in. About two-thirds of Walloons voted for left-wing or left of centre parties at the last election, whereas almost three-quarters of Flemings voted for right wing or right of centre parties.

The south attach themselves firmly to a bloated, centralised state, with every facet of society being controlled by some governmental organisation. An over-generous welfare system is seen as par for the course. If ever there was such a thing as "socialism" in Europe, Wallonia would be the nearest thing to it. The north take a far more liberal, pragmatic view: less control, more market liberalism, and cut the deficit by tackling the burden of welfare.

Many other comments from Flemish readers expressed how incensed they are that the north is funding the indiscretions of the south. The same old arguments. I couldn't find anything from a Walloon. I guess not speaking English doesn't help.

I also noticed a startling fact, again in The Economist, that according to figures compiled by the OECD, the average homeowner in Belgium (and France) "has to find another 14% (one of the highest in the OECD) of a house's purchase price to pay for moving costs, including taxes, legal costs and agency fees." It continues, noting that "countries with higher transaction costs tend to have more rigid labour markets, as workers are less inclined to relocate to get a job."

For 'rigid labour markets' read "harder to sack workers."

Today, we're up to 239 days without a government. On March 30th, Belgium will beat Iraq's record. Seems a shame not to.