THE last time Belgium held a general election, in 2007, it took 282 days to form a fully fledged coalition government. The country is now being called to fresh elections on June 13th. Forming the next coalition may well be harder.
Among the Dutch-speakers of Flanders in the country’s north, the polls are topped by Bart De Wever, a populist bruiser who describes French-speakers in the south as “dependents” addicted to transfers from the thrifty Flemish. He wants to split the tax system in two, as well as the welfare state and most other public spending. The king and the country called Belgium can stay, for the time being, but Flanders’s “natural evolution”, says Mr De Wever, is to become an independent state.
Among the French-speakers who make up 40% of Belgium’s population, polls show a lead for Elio Di Rupo, a Socialist whose battle cry is “solidarity” within Belgium (ie, continued transfers from Flanders). Though Belgium’s public debt stands at 99% of national income, Mr Di Rupo promises above-inflation spending rises on health and pensions. In a final flourish, he is calling for price controls on 200 staples, such as bread and milk. Somehow, a coalition must be formed with the consent of these two men.
It has not been an impressive election campaign. Belgium’s leaders have barely addressed Europe’s most dangerous economic crisis in a generation. Instead they have argued about language rights in a set of Flemish communes with lots of French-speaking residents, and other local arcana.
For years, federal Belgium thought it would be a model for the European Union, in which powers would flow down to regions and up to a Euro-superstate, leaving nations as empty shells in the middle. Unsurprisingly, Belgians loved this vision: it promised to dissolve their troublesome kingdom into a United States of Europe (with Brussels as its capital). But Europe went another way. Nation states proved hard to kill off and a few big national leaders dominate EU politics.
Instead, this election has revealed Belgium as another sort of model for Europe: a union in which north-south divisions undermine economic and political integration. Consider Mr De Wever’s sloganeering. He does not just sound off about transfers of billions of euros from Flanders. He also charges that tax inspectors are less zealous in the south of the country. He grumbles that the motorways of Flanders are lined with radar traps, whereas Wallonia’s are camera-free. The Flemish regional budget minister, a party colleague, complains that frugal Flanders plans to run a surplus by 2011, whereas the French-speaking rulers in Brussels and Wallonia plan to let their deficits run for another five years. A health spokesman for the N-VA, Mr De Wever’s party, talks of profiteering, bill-padding and “francophone abuses” in southern hospitals.
Just to Belgium’s north, Europe barely featured in the Dutch election on June 9th. But Mark Rutte, leader of the right-wing liberal VVD and probable next prime minister, vowed to seek big cuts in Dutch payments to the EU and dismissed EU aid for poor regions as mostly “money recycling”. These are the complaints of a north-south culture clash, just as clearly as headlines in Germany asking why Germans should pay for Greeks to retire at 55.
Discipline is what they need
This has consequences for the EU. Europe is divided between a Germanic block determined to save the euro with budgetary discipline and a southern block, led by France, that wants to save the day with things like cheaper borrowing through Eurobonds and transfers from rich to poor in a “fiscal union”.
Yet if Belgium, a single country with a single treasury, is struggling to preserve its transfer union, what hope does Europe have of creating one from scratch? Southern advocates of “solidarity” accuse northerners of selfishness. That is simplistic: this is not just a fight about money. Belgium offers Europe a further lesson: for voters to consent to transfers of wealth, they must feel that the recipients are democratically accountable to them.
Belgium is dying as a nation for several reasons, but a big one is its lack of national democracy. Belgian political parties divided along French- and Dutch-speaking lines four decades ago, and most voting districts are split the same way. Southerners who believe in Belgium cannot vote against Mr De Wever. Voters in Flanders worried about deficits can do nothing to sanction free-spending Mr Di Rupo. This democratic deficit is reproduced at the European level. Germany has been criticised for proposing punitive governance in the euro zone that could see rule-breaking countries lose EU funds or voting rights. To hear some in Brussels, Germany is at best obsessed with monetary stability, at worst a selfish bully. But Germany’s focus on discipline is arguably an attempt to fix a democratic deficit. Germans may have to bail out Greece or Spain without any power to choose a Greek or Spanish government committed to reform. The next best thing might be binding rules that force southern governments to take seriously those things dear to German voters.
Euro-dreamers say a fiscal-transfer union could be built on the legitimacy of the European Parliament. In the real world, most voters neither know nor care who represents them in the EU’s parliament. Build too weighty a project on those fragile foundations and it will crumble. Well then, say the dreamers, at future European elections, presidents of the European Commission and some members of the European Parliament should stand in pan-European constituencies. Once the continent embraces pan-European politics, all manner of budgetary and fiscal unions would become possible. It all sounds logical enough, but Europe’s democratic divisions run deep. Just ask Belgium, a country of 10m people struggling to achieve pan-Belgian politics.
A model of mistrust
Not for the first time Belgium is a microcosm of the EU. And not in a good way