When the chips are down

By Khaled Diab

revolutionary fever has spread to Europe as Belgians raise their freedom fries, not to bring down a regime but to ask for one to be formed.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Missing the most defining moments in Egypt's recent history by a few short weeks and watching the revolution unfold in my native land from afar has been frustrating.

But some of that revolutionary spirit has infected my adoptive land, , where young people have started what has been called the friet revolutie or “fries ” (after that most popular of national symbols, Belgian chips) to express their anger and frustration at their country's ongoing failure to form a government.

Creative events have been held across the country to mark the world-record-breaking 250 days without government, including a strip protest, beer demos, and the continuation of longstanding actions such as shaving and sex strikes. The largest event was held just down the road from where I live in Ghent, where protesters occupied one of the city's main squares and partied until midnight, when a delegate from – the former record holder – handed over a trophy.

“We want to show our politicians that we are proud of their performance,” one of the organisers told Belgian TV with a heavy hint of irony. “At first we thought: what in God's name are they up to? Are there no important problems that need solving? When we realised they were obviously going for this world record we decided they deserved a celebration.”

Of course, no one is proud that Belgium has won this dubious record, but irony and the surreal are two qualities that cross the language barrier and unify Belgians. In my personal view, Belgium broke the ‘no government' record a long time ago, with its failure to build a lasting coalition and the political crisis that has ensued since the previous in 2007.

In a piece on Comment is Free, Laurens de Vos wrote, “the feeling is growing that if the country is bound to be split up, so be it”. This strikes me as wishful thinking on the part of De Vos, who is a member of  the Flemish nationalist N-VA, which seeks the gradual creation of an independent Flemish state and which – along with intransigent elements in the Francophone community – is largely responsible for the current impasse.

My impression, supported by the gathering protest movement, is that most ordinary Belgians feel the country faces more important issues than the so-called “federal reform” currently paralysing Belgium's political class. The reform debate is allowing politicians to be distracted from crucial issues, such as agreeing a budget, tackling growing unemployment, and allaying the fears of foreign investors and financial markets.

De Vos also recycles a typical Flemish nationalist chestnut, citing the apparently irreconcilable differences between the country's two communities. “There have been disagreements on virtually every single topic between the socialist south, oriented to ‘Latin' Europe, and the north with its more Anglo-Saxon approach,” he says, though the more generic “Germanic” is the more typical term used to describe Flemings.

This is a transparent attempt to butter up to British readers by suggesting that Flemings and Brits are in the same club and those Walloons are ‘Latin', with all the negative stereotypes that label carries. But this bears little resemblance to reality, except on the linguistic front. In my experience, Belgians are very similar culturally, despite the language difference – far more so than the regional differences within larger countries, such as my own Egypt.

It is true that the political landscapes in and Wallonia are different, but this is largely due to the fact that the south (which used to be the most prosperous) has a concentration of declining heavy and mining, and hence tends to vote socialist, while the north is traditionally more rural and, in recent decades, has become a hub for hi-tech industry and services, and so tends to vote more liberal and conservative. It's like the divide in the between the home counties and the north – yet at the moment few people are calling for the breakup of England.

Moreover, the political diversity within the regions is large. Flanders has areas with a strong progressive and socialist tradition, such as Ghent and the former mining communities of Limburg. In fact, to register its to Flemish separatism, Ghent declared its from Flanders and became a city state for a day.

In keeping with his party's separatist agenda, De Vos proposes a number of decentralising policies that will rob the federal state of most of what remains of its powers, leaving Belgium an empty shell, effectively dead. But, as I've argued before, independence is not in the best long-term interests of either Flanders or Wallonnia.

So, what's the solution to the deadlock? In my view, and that of many of the protesters, Belgium needs to reinvent its political landscape and recreate national political parties, because local parties cannot hold national appeal in federal elections, and social security must remain federal. On the social front, Belgium needs a national media and a universally bilingual education system.

If Belgian politicians fail to resolve their differences soon, then may be it will be time for a real revolution in which the political class are given their marching orders and Belgians seize direct control of their democracy, making their country the first post-party state.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 18 February 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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