After a year and a half of debate and negotiations between the Flemish and the Walloons, Belgium will finally have a government with full executive powers in the coming days. Still, Belgium is not out of crisis. The country which houses the heart of the EU may explode at any time, sowing discord in all of Europe. Yet, the only ones who really seem to care about Belgium are the Belgians themselves.
It had to wait that the Belgian debt rating has been lowered from AA + to AA for the politicians decide to act. On the 25th of November, an agreement on a tight budget was finally reached between the various political parties in Belgium. And this opened the way for the formation of a new government. 535 days since the government of Yves Leterme, former Flamish Prime Minister, resigned. 535 days during which Belgium has lived without a full government. 535 days that the Belgians have been waiting for a new functional government. And 535 days that the European Union has been trying to ignore the problem.
The political, cultural and linguistic crisis that has divided Belgium since 1830 has never been stronger. And the country has never been so close to rupture. Between the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the North and the French-speaking Walloons in the South, the political and economic arrangements are becoming harder to find. So much so that the country is politically paralyzed.
But how can a country without a government continue to live and function as if nothing has happened? How can it keep its place and credibility within the European Union, mainly when we know that Belgium houses most of the premises of the European institutions? “During this political crisis, Belgium has maintained a government of current affairs. The only difference with a normal government is that it can not make long term decisions for the country” explains Andrezj Bielecki, from the Permanent Representation of Belgium to the EU, which represents the Belgian interests in the European Council. “We always have a Belgian representative to the EU, we continue to defend our interests”. For Marc Tarabella, socialist MEP, “Belgium’s relations with the EU have always been excellent, even in the storm. We are complicated to manage, but we have made compromises to the EU. We have a legitimacy in Europe”.
A crisis that the EU prefers to ignore
However, political tensions within the country have a certain impact on its economy and therefore also on the EU’s. “With the crisis, our public debt is approaching 100% of GDP, explains Andrezj Bielecki. “Some economic measures are necessary that Belgium can not take without a real government”. And the last thing that the EU needs is another country in fiscal crisis.
However, Europe seems to be little worried about the Belgian political problem. “It is astonishing to see how the EU doesn’t care about the conflict, says Jean Quatremer, a French journalist, correspondent in Brussels. “Europe is interested in Belgium only for the economic problems the country is likely to cause in the euro zone. The EU prefers to repress and to ignore the problem because recognizing it means that the risk can happen and that Belgium could break up. But this is the worst behavior that the EU can have. The EU does not help the country to find an issue in its conflict”.
So the EU would be responsible for Belgium? “Absolutely not!” exclaims Marc Tarabella. “This is an internal story, which only concerns the country”. A view shared by Andrezj Bielecki. “I do not see what the EU can do in the political affairs of Belgium”, he says. “To say that the EU can solve the problem of the country is to put the European Commission on a pedestal”.
Meanwhile, the crisis is far from settled. And the risk of splitting the country is still very real. “We can not exclude this possibility. Personally, I don’t want it. It would be contrary to what advocates the EU. But the N-VA, the party of separatist Flemish, is around 30 % of votes.” Nevertheless, for him, things are pretty clear: if the breakup of the country happens, the EU would be obliged to interfere. “There will be a battle between Flanders and Wallonia to see who will keep the name of Belgium. And for me it will be Wallonia, which would then be connected to Brussels. Belgium will always exist and therefore the EU will be saved. But if the independent Flanders apply one day for EU membership, it is quite clear to me that it would be refused. The EU has no interest in promoting nationalism and independence”.
In the end, the real loser is Belgium itself. At least, what’s left of the country. “The real question now is to know if Belgium still exists”, says Jean Quatremer. “For me, there are already two different countries, that nothing unites. Belgium is two public spaces that do not communicate. An artificial couple only remains bound by its common child, Brussels”.