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Postcard from Europe: A dubious record for Belgium

Belgium has broken a new record. It's been without a government for over 300 days, the longest period for any country in history. Iraq last held the record. In this Postcard from Brussels, Vanessa Mock wonders why.

A tattered Belgian flag blowing in the wind at the Cinquantenaire monument in Brussels

For nearly a year, Belgian unity has been in tatters

"I can't listen to that rubbish anymore," a Brussels taxi driver told me recently. The cabbie had just turned off his car radio with a decisive click just when the news bulletin came on. He swung around to me and asked: "What's the point? No one can make head nor tail of what's going on anymore. We've had enough."

Many Belgian friends have started to do the same: they are boycotting television news and no longer read the newspapers. And who can blame them? The Belgians have been fed a daily diet of crisis talks, deadlocks and walk-outs for the best part of three years. And the media is often partisan.

The latest cycle of doom and gloom began last June, when yet another general election was called to break the impasse between politicians from the Dutch-speaking Flemish north and the French-speaking Walloon South. Needless to say in this context, they are deeply divided.

For a very brief moment, there was a flicker of hope that the two main winners of that election might just pull it off and cobble together a government. But it was a match made in hell. Elio di Rupo, a slight, French-speaking Socialist with a penchant for bow ties, soon threw in the towel. That left Bart de Wever, the corpulent, outspoken leader of the Flemish separatists to do the job alone.

When he gave up, the country's long-suffering King Albert intervened and appointed Johan Vande Lanotte, a special advisor.

To his credit, Vande Lanotte was brave enough to grab the bull by the horns; he got stuck into drafting some much-needed reforms of the state. On paper, they seemed to satisfy Flemish demands for greater autonomy for the country's different regions. Some Flemings argue that as the wealthier part of the country, they are propping up poorer Wallonia. The Walloons like to remind them that it used to be the other way around, once upon a time.

But unbelievably, even after over half a year of stalemate, this last-ditch effort has not brought the two sides back to the negotiating table. No one knows where to go from here. Fresh elections would solve nothing - if anything, they would only give larger majorities to the most extreme parties.

Vanessa Mock

DW's Vanessa Mock wonders how the impasse in Belgian politics can be broken

A Belgian politics expert tells me that never before have the two sides been so entrenched, so utterly unwilling to compromise. "But Belgians can only work with compromise," he cried. "The whole country is built on that principle."

The tragedy is that it's the politicians who created the problem. Most Flemings and Walloons get on and they will happily sit around a glass of Belgian beer or two of an evening.

But politics has started to poison the nation's mood. Many Belgian flags used to hang from the windows in my neighbourhood in Brussels in a gesture of public solidarity. But now most of the flags are gone, those that are left are tatty and darkened by rain.

But I refuse to give up hope in this bizarre little country. The Belgians are a long-suffering lot. They are used to coasting along without a government, all the while poking jokes at their homeland which they nickname "Absurdistan."

In a typically Belgian gesture, one of the country's best known actors has called on his fellow Belgians not to shave until the country finally forms a government. Next week, students will take to the streets in a mass demo to express their frustration. Hopefully, they will all have started growing their beards. Perhaps, just perhaps, this young generation will be able to hammer home the message to politicians that enough is enough.

Author: Vanessa Mock

Editor: Helen Seeney

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