Saturday, April 27, 2013


Chris Patten defined the United States and Britain/Europe as "cousins and strangers."  The same could be said about the Netherlands and Belgium.
The differences grow and are highlighted now that Queen Beatrix is abdicating. She has been a formidable monarch, overcoming personal tragedies and steering the Netherlands on a path that made her country a model. The new Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam can rightly be seen as the 'finale" of a remarkable reign. Obviously this was also the result of a collective memory wherein the country has an enormous self-esteem, not unlike what also prevails in Sweden and Denmark, which are equally small countries with a macro-historical added value. On April 30th, Prince Willem-Alexander will inherit both a "state" and a history.
The situation in Belgium is very different. It provides more stories than history, having been part of larger entities or united with the Netherlands from 1815 until 1830.  Since independence, the country has rested on a succession of arrangements which often highlight more the diversity than the union. The monarch has to be the arbiter and the pacifier, hence his role in the past has been considerable.
The Saxe-Coburgs are a strange, interesting lot. It is difficult to predict how they will act after they are installed (in Belgium the succession is not automatic and needs the approval of the government). Fortunately in most cases the king has happened to be the right man in the right place. It would be hazardous to predict how the current crown prince will act when he succeeds his father, King Albert II. He will have a difficult part to play after the current reign which has received high respect from all corners. Fortunately he will inherit a situation which has improved in the last years, especially since the current government under Prime Minister Elio de Rupo was installed. The financial situation is not ideal but scores in the middle. Devolution has  become a habit and the Belgian way of deal making helped to overcome problems of the sort which assail countries like Spain, the United Kingdom or Italy. There is no violence between regions or other actors in the federal state. Belgium does not pretend to stand as a model, choosing pragmatism above ideology. But this also has a more negative consequence, insofar as the central authority looks weakened and suffers from a low visibility. Nevertheless one should not mistake low-key with "distraction."  Belgian politics are merciless. The formidable radical Belgian politician, Bart De Wever, has become the mayor of Antwerp. In doing so he may have made a mistake in prioritizing the Aventine rather than the Capitoline.The Belgian political class is prone to offer pillows that are handed out less for comfort than for asphyxia.
Prince Philippe will inherit a very complex situation, unlike his Dutch counterpart. Belgium will always remain a country in search of identity and the king has always been the accepted ruler of last resort. Some now want to curtail the political influence of the Crown, favoring a more ceremonial role as in other comparable monarchies. I think this has to be considered with a lot of caution because the "colloque singulier" has often  been more a life-jacket than an obstruction.
Belgium will remain forever a country which puts a certain chaotic "art de vivre" ahead of an "art de regime."
Herein lies the paradox:  a truly messy democratic laboratory which has chosen the individual path rather than the collective systemic meter. To navigate those often centrifugal collision-prone energies requires patience, tact and some Machiavellian talent.

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