I'm in Trier, Germany today, attending a seminar for journalists on the European Court of Justice (the EU equivalent of the US Supreme Court, though with some important differences). Though I may be away from Brussels for the day the news feed on my iphone started blowing up this afternoon with news about my new host country as it became official - the Belgian government has fallen. Though the country's king worked tirelessly over the weekend to try to sort out a compromise between the warring Frencophone and Dutch-speaking parties, he has been unable to bring peace to the parliament, and today accepted the resignation of the prime minister.
International media reaction to the news has been muted, most likely because this is starting to become such a routine event. The government last collapsed in July 2008, during a period where at one point there was no Belgian government for well over a year. Not that you would have noticed. Belgium has become so decentralised - with authority split between the three regions of Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels - that the national government hardly does anything any more.
But though Belgian government collapses may have become so routine as to be non-events, this time the collapse has serious implications. Belgium is set to assume the rotating EU council presidency in July. If the country can't sort out the crisis before then, there will be no government to assume that presidency. Having a government collapse while it is holding the presidency, in fact it happened just last year during the Czech presidency, which was widely considered a shambolic failure. But that situation was a bit different because the government collapsed during the presidency, so the events, goals and structure had already been set up (though other EU member states had to step in and pick up the slack to run the meetings after the Czech government fell).
In the Belgian case, there will be no government to even set up the events and meetings, or to put in place the basic structure of how the presidency will function (they haven't even unveiled a logo for their presidency yet I don't think). Such a situation is unprecedented, and it's not clear what the EU will do if there is still no Belgian government by July. Life would go on and the council would figure out some way to keep things functioning, but it would be massively embarassing and a huge lost opportunity for the country. The EU presidency sets the agenda for the meetings of national ministers, and Belgium won't get another opportunity to exert this influence for another 13 years.
It isn't just the loss of international prestige and influence that is at risk. The New York Times said last week the collapse of the government could do huge damage to Belgium's already fragile economy. The deficit is already forecast to reach 4.8 percent of GDP this year. An election is expected to be called for June, but that's calling it very close for the July start of the EU presidency. And in the mean time there is no government to put together the presidency's programme.
The conflict, of course, is about the ever-existent language dispute. I was rather bemused when I heard the news on Friday actually, because I was supposed to be doing a radio phone-in that afternoon about the expected parliamentary vote to ban the Islamic veil. But just hours before it was set to take place, I received word that the vote wouldn't be happening because the government had collapsed. I phoned a US colleague and told him the news and he said "Oh, because of the controversy over the veil ban?" I could only laugh. The proposed ban may be controversial in the Anglo-Saxon world where it has received much media attention, but in Belgium it is anything but. In fact, it was set to pass the parliament by one of the largest proportions ever. Even the ultra-leftist Greens were supporting the ban, which would ban anything that covers the face in public places (without specifically mentioning the hijab or niqa, but clearly meant to target it). It would seem the one thing the Flemish and Walloons can agree on is the need to ban the head covering worn by an estimated 30 women in Belgium. No, that's not a typo.
The government's collapse was over yet another conflict over how to draw the electoral map between the French-speaking and Dutch-speaking community. It's rather complicated but without going into great detail, the conflict is over whether a specific region on the outskirts of Brussels where a large proportion of the people speak French should be made part of the Brussels electoral district (it's not part of the Flanders voting district). That distinction is important because people in Flemish voting districts can only vote for Flemish parties, but people in Brussels voting districts can vote for either Francophone or Flemish parties. The Francophones want the district to be able to vote for Francophone parties, the Flemish don't. So the Flemish liberal party walked out of the governing coalition when it looked like they weren't going to get their way.
I've explained the language conflict in Belgium before, and there is little to add now. But taking the train through Wallonia yesterday, it really struck home what an insurmountable conflict this really is. As we passed through deserted mining town after deserted mining town, the awkwardness that remains between the prosperous Flanders and the poor Wallonia was illustrated to full effect. Just a century ago it was Wallonia that was a thriving mineral-rich mining area and Flanders that was full of poor farmers. Now the situation is reversed. The once-subjugated Flemish resent having to pay such high taxes to support the largely unemployed Walloons when they feel little connection to them culturally.
Will the country split? It's anybody's guess, but I would put my money on 'yes'. Not any time soon mind you, but I would be surprised if Belgium is still a country in 15 years. There's only so long that this constant collapse-and reform pattern of the national government can last, and it seems unlikely the Walloons will be able to block the Flemish desire to give the regions power over taxation (basically one of the only things they don't have authority over yet). Once that separation takes place, there will be nothing holding the country together any more.
Tomorrow I'm heading to Luxembourg to see the European Court of Justice in action, then I head back to Brussels. It's unlikely I'll see any sign of the government shut-down, but it will be interesting to watch the election unfold in June. I have to admit other than the basics of the language divide I don't know much about the individual Belgian parties, so I'll have to familiarise myself with them. But for the moment, there is obviously a different election I'm watching. The UK election takes place next week, and I'll be there this Thursday to next Tuesday. Unfortunately I'm heading back to Brussels the day before the election, but I'm hoping to find some kind of election results-watching party there. I'm excited to see the lay of the land in London over the weekend, it's all so uncertain!