Thursday, 17 February 2011

Who punched whom? Brussels transit hangs in the balance

There are many expressions that expats have come up with to describe life in Belgium, but perhaps my favourite is this: "It's as if someone made surreal a country." No expression seemed more appropriate on Tuesday when the Brussels transit union suddenly called an immediate strike to protest the fact that a metro conductors had been punched by a passenger. But after a day of chaos with the city's entire transit system shut down, it emerged that in fact it was the conductor who had punched the passenger, not the other way around.

On Monday night the conductor got into an argument with a passenger and then throttled him. Afterward, fearing he would get in trouble, he lied and said the passenger had punched him. Upon hearing this, the transit workers union immediately rallied to his defence and that night, just two hours after the incident occurred, called an immediate strike. Every transit worker walked off the job, and did not come back the next morning.

So when I and everyone else went to the metro station Tuesday morning we found it shut - with no explanation. There was no sign, no people telling us what was going on, nothing. I had to go all the way back to my apartment and go online to find out what was going on. All metro trains, trams and buses didn't run the entire day. And with every cab taken, I had no choice but to work from home.

But apparently the metro conductor in question forgot that there were cameras in the station. It didn't take long before a local paper got ahold of the tape and found the photographic evidence that doesn't lie – the conductor was the one who punched the passenger. So, the transit workers came back to work Wednesday morning. Were they embarrassed? Not at all. The union hasn't even apologized for shutting down Belgium's capital city for an entire day over what turned out to be a deception by one of their own staff. It is the constant threats to the security of the metro workers that resulted in the conductor losing his temper, they insisted, and so the strike was still justified.

And that, my friends, is Belgium. Tomorrow the country will become the world record holder for the longest period of time with no government – beating Iraq with 250 days of non-leadership. We have been without a federal government here since inconclusive elections in June, as the Conservative Flemish and Socialist Francophone parties have been unable to come to an agreement to form a coalition. The Flemish and Francophones are no closer to reaching an agreement than they were 250 days ago, and nobody here would be surprised if we reach 300 days or possibly…never.

To be honest, despite the fact that there's no national government you'd hardly notice the difference. So much of day-to-day governing here has been delegated to the regions – Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels – that there isn't much left for the federal government to do except collect taxes. And it's the taxes that bothers the wealthy Dutch-speaking Flemings. They don't want their tax money to go toward subsidizing their poorer French-speaking neighbours any longer. They refuse to form a government unless the Francophones agree to make Belgium a confederation of three independent countries. But the francophones fear economic collapse of their regions, Wallonia and Brussels, if this were to happen. If Wallonia were to become an independent country, it would be the poorest nation in Western Europe.

And so life goes on here like some kind of elaborate farce. And if you think it looks strange from outside the country, let me assure you it isn't any less bizarre from inside. Foreign papers have been reporting on the situation with bemusement, highlighting the more bizarre protest actions of beard-growing and sex-denying. Several English papers have reported on a giant street party that's set to take place in Ghent tonight, counting down to the moment when Belgium will achieve its world record. There's even been a spoof theatre trailer going around the internet celebrating the heroes who have made this possible.

Despite all this, I've been really enjoying my time in Brussels so far. This country is an exceedingly strange place, and we live under constant uncertainty over whether the country in which we live will still exist in five years. And yet, much like a surrealist painting, it's fascinating to get lost within the depths of this bizarre place. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ha ha this is very fun, and as another expat in bxl I totally agree!! Everything here is dysfunctional, nothing is logical, it's a broken country. But it's great fun!