Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Belgium: starting over?

Belgium can figure amongst the Guinness Book of Records as the country which remained for the longest period ever without a government. Still it managed to survive and the traditional parties are ready to form a coalition government by next week under the leadership of the Walloon socialist Elio de Rupo, son of Italian immigrants. The man is controversial, smart and atypical in the grey climate of Belgian politics. He deserves respect for what looked like an unachievable task, given the exacerbated internal regional tensions which can derail noble ambitions. For sure both the King and the caretaker prime minister played a major role in this outcome. The Royal Palace was able to outmaneuver the extremes and the prime minister played a constructive role after an inauspicious start.

The financial crisis in the euro zone put further pressure on the negotiators who saw the markets getting the jitters. It has to be hoped that the proposed austerity measures will be implemented as soon as possible.

Good news does not equal or guarantee a good outcome. The major party in Flanders is in the opposition and can be expected to play hard, without mercy. Despite the fact that it often looks out of tune with the requirements of globalization, it remains a force to reckon with. Small, populist agendas make for lethal weapons.

Lately Belgium has been a good team-player in the EU and NATO. It should continue to do so and expand its reach which is in line with a historical tradition. International “savoir-faire” legitimates continuity and existence. Ground that has been lost during the crisis has to be regained. The often negative comments of media like the Financial Times, Le Monde or The Economist must be rolled back. This will require more than a public relations strategy. Belgium must retake the initiative and its place in the international community, which it lost due to parochial tensions which derailed the country from its normal path. The negative forces have not given up and to be optimistic is premature at least. There is a pause largely due to exhaustion but this should not be confused with closure. Only time will tell if the truce will loom larger than its alternative. The Belgians have to feel that the present brings them an added value if they choose to continue to live under the same roof. If there is no perceivable change fast, the house of cards will not withstand the assault of the “new look brown shirts”. Their hope is all past hagiography. If de Rupo is able to mobilize the younger generation, there might be a silver lining in sight. After all, the fact that most negotiators were young helped him to get rid of antiquated dogmas, which should remain mothballed once and for all. It would be absurd indeed to freeze solidarity with the neighbors in the same country while at the same time bailing out the rest of the world. Sometimes small countries are also too big to fail. Belgium will always be a hybrid, almost a laboratory experiment. I prefer to keep the Dr. Mabuses out.

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