If a government falls and practically nobody hears it, does it make a sound?
Unable — or unwilling — to work together, bickering politicians have left unassuming Belgium without a fully functioning government for eight months, the longest for any nation in Europe since World War II.
Through most of that time, few Belgians, let alone the outside world, even seemed to notice. Trains continue to run, waffles are still being grilled on street corners, and people window-shop along centuries-old arcades. Tourists still sample mussels, go for overpriced canal rides in Bruges and snap up Tintin souvenirs, blissfully unaware of a political crisis.
The European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, both headquartered here in Brussels, barely muster a shrug at the vagaries of Belgian domestic politics.
But patience inside and outside the country is starting to wear thin, and not just because residents are embarrassed that they could overtake Iraq for the modern world record in how long it takes to form a government. (Iraq: 289 days, in 2010. Belgium: 252 as of Monday and counting, according to a cheeky Belgian website, https://www.hetwereldrecord.be.)
With only a caretaker government in place since the previous one collapsed and inconclusive elections were held in June, no new policies are being enacted at a time when the unemployment rate hovers around 8%, economic recovery is fragile, and the euro remains in crisis.
Normally mild-mannered Belgians are finally throwing off their indifference — and their clothes. On Thursday, several dozen protesters stripped to their underwear in the northern city of Ghent to show their displeasure, as well some goose bumps in the chilly weather. They weren’t ashamed, but Belgium’s leaders should be, they said, because even Iraq managed to name a prime minister, if not a fully formed government, at this stage in the game.
On a more serious note, tens of thousands of Belgians marched through Brussels last month to protest their lawmakers’ inability to do what they’ve been elected to do: run the country.
Whereas demonstrators throughout the Arab world are trying to get rid of their governments, Belgians are yearning for one.
“There are peaks of hope when you think they’ll do something, and then it goes down again. It’s like a manic-depressive way of forming a government,” said Felix De Clerck, 27, who helped organize the rally.
One of the country’s best-known actors even called on Belgian men to stop shaving until a government is in place. But a quick beard check on the streets of Brussels suggests that the idea has yet to catch on.
Marleen Temmerman, a member of the Belgian Senate, touts a more drastic proposal. This month, she urged the partners of the political negotiators to go on a sex boycott until an agreement on a government is reached.
But Temmerman is a realist, both about the power of politicians’ libidos and the possibly greater power of political inertia. “I don’t think that, first of all, the partners would go [on] a sex strike,” Temmerman told BBC Radio. “Even if they did, I don’t think this would influence or speed up our government. But it’s worth talking about it.”
The protracted political impasse is rooted in the historical divisions between the 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and the 4.5 million French-speaking Walloons in the south. Their rivalry has produced a bewildering array of political parties that splinter the vote in elections, making coalition governments the only possibility.
But June’s elections gave new power to the strongly nationalist New Flemish Alliance, or N-VA, which surged from being a small minority party to winning the most seats in Parliament — though far short of a majority. Its negotiations with the dominant party in the Francophone south, a socialist grouping, quickly went nowhere. And stayed there.
That wasn’t necessarily surprising given the N-VA’s support for a more autonomous or even an independent Flanders, an unthinkable outcome for many Belgians, especially in the south, who cling fiercely to the union of the two sides into one country in 1830.
Although Belgium has grappled with tensions between its Dutch- and French-speaking communities since its foundation, no one sees an outright breakup of the country as imminent.
Still, the political paralysis is becoming unseemly.
To break the deadlock, King Albert II has appointed a series of mediators, none of whom has had any success. The latest one to quit stuck it out for three months before finally telling his royal highness late last month that it was simply no use.
“It was impossible to break the impasse,” said the mediator, Johan Vande Lanotte, who, coincidentally or not, sports a goatee. “There is no real perspective of progress.”
Some urgency was added to the talks after a ratings agency warned Brussels in December that a continued standoff could drag down the country’s credit rating.
Pascal Delwit, a professor at the Free University of Brussels, said a market backlash may be the only power capable of forcing the parties to come to an agreement, and so a little saber-rattling from investors might actually be welcome.
“Some politicians are waiting for a crisis and are hoping for new pressure to form this government, because the current situation is truly blocked,” Delwit said. “There is no natural deadline.”
Delwit is worried that the Belgian art of compromise, built up over the years, is being lost. Throughout 181 years of political matrimony, the Dutch and French populations may not have seen eye to eye, but they have mostly managed to stay civil and search for common ground.
That sense of cooperation has deteriorated markedly in recent years, fueled, as in so many marriages, by disputes over money. In this case, wealthy Flanders resents subsidizing poorer Wallonia.
Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament from Belgium’s Green Party, said resolving the crisis in Brussels would set a beneficial example for the rest of Europe, where similar regional tensions can be found within nations, such as Italy and Spain, and between the northern and southern parts of the continent.
“It’s really important that we demonstrate in Belgium that finding an agreement in a multicultural society is actually a cornerstone of building Europe,” Lamberts said.
Like many Belgians, he’s sick of turning on the TV or opening the newspaper to discover that negotiators still haven’t reached or a deal or are refusing to speak to one another.
“The fact that we are stalling is what gets people upset,” Lamberts said. “They know we are playing political games.”
And so Belgians have come up with stunts of their own, like the semi-naked protest in Ghent last week to “celebrate” the lack of a government.
“We’re actually organizing a street party to congratulate our politicians,” political commentator Yves Desmet wrote in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen, describing the impulse as “ironic melancholy dressed up as surrealism.” “In the end, this is typical of Belgium.”
Not everything is exasperated frivolity. Last month’s protest in Brussels drew more than 30,000 people. Although the majority were Francophone residents, an estimated 20% or more were Flemings, who have tended to avoid such demonstrations in the past.
The protest’s five organizers also come from both sides of the linguistic and cultural divide, which ought to send a message in and of itself, said De Clerck, who is Flemish.
“We succeeded in something that the politicians can’t seem to do: We worked together on a goal or project … and focused on what unites us,” he said. “We succeeded where the politicians failed.”