Will Belgian Cocktail be too strong for the new government?

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin) - Belgium, a small European country with a split personality, has overcome a record political crisis - it did not have a government for nine months following last year's June 10 elections.

The talks between the age-old opponents - the Flemish and the Walloons - were close to success several times but still failed to form a coalition. Finally, on Thursday March 20, Belgian King Albert II named 47 year-old Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme as prime minister.

Leterme is expected to address parliament, seeking the confidence of both houses, a process which is a sheer formality. Then he will have to ponder over ways of resolving Belgium's long-standing serious problems. The Belgium politicians have decided to suspend solving them until summer when they will send parliament one more devolution bill, which aims to reduce the rights of the center in favor of the provinces.

Another crisis may break out at this point. The Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North want the regions to have more rights as distinct from the French-speaking Wallonia in the South, who do not accept this proposal, at least in its current version.

This is usual in today's Belgium - the Walloons are rejecting what the Flemish like and vice versa. Belgians are not at all Europe's bad guys. It seems that ethnic and linguistic intolerance has been deliberately developed within this group during the past few decades. This may be explained by lack of political foresight, or inability of politicians to adapt the country to the changing economic conditions, or by vanity and egoism, or by all these reasons combined.

Brussels does not appear fit to be the capital of the European Union (EU) because the reputation of the EU capital should be spotless. It should be an example of national unity. In this respect Koninkrijk Belge for the Flemish and le Royaume de Belgique for the Walloons is a bad example. Belgium's national unity has been spoiled so much by separatist and nationalistic attitudes. If we look at Belgium's history, we will see that everything in its political and administrative arrangement has been turned upside down, and is a total mess.

The Belgians are not to blame for this. During its entire history, their homeland has been retailored by stronger European neighbors - both next-door and far beyond over and over again. As a result, the kingdom has developed this dual personality. It is true, though, that the Flemish majority (almost six million, or 60%) have always disliked the French-speaking minority (almost four million, or 40%).

The Belgian example is a good case in point for all those who are interested in separatist, nationalist, linguistic, religious and other old conflicts in Europe. In Belgium, all these ingredients have formed a rather strong cocktail. This is not the first crisis in Belgian history. Twenty years ago, it did not have a government for 148 days, either.

The Francophone Belgians are blaming the Flemish for engineering a split. The Flemish want the central government to reduce subsidies to the regions, and the regional authorities to receive the right to regulate employment laws and introduce corporate taxes. The Walloons argue that this would give Flanders the status of a state within a state, which would destroy the kingdom. The Flemish retort by saying that they are sick and tired of sharing honestly-earned incomes with the lazy South. As distinct from the well-to-do Flanders, Wallonia annually received up to 10 billion euros worth of state subsidies.

Belgian separatism is an illustrative example of a mess created by statesmen with regional rather than national brains. Wallonia's problems started much earlier than ten years ago - with a general European decline of coal mining and steel-making industries, the key economic sectors of the southern provinces. In the meantime, Flanders started moving ahead with its chemical industry, oil refineries and Antwerp, the world's third largest port in terms of shipments.

Few policymakers were concerned about the need to restructure the national economy. This explains the current imbalance, which is feeding today's ethnic envy and dislike.

We should not offend all Belgians and think that they can't wait to see their country split and sing La Bracbanconne (the national anthem in Walloon) in the South and De Brabanconne (the same anthem in Flemish) in the North. However, it would be interesting to see whether the new government will remain sober after drinking the strong Belgian cocktail.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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