249 days without a government: an international mediator for Belgium?

As you may know, Belgium today pulled level with Iraq as the country which has been without a government for the longest time – a shocking 249 days. Since an election was held on the 13th of June 2010 – a vote in which Flemish nationalists triumphed in the North, and francophone socialists in the South – parties from both sides of the language divide have been unable to come to an agreement on forming a governing coalition. As a result, the cabinet of Yves Leterme, whose resignation the King accepted on April 26 of last year, is still running day-to-day matters as an outgoing caretaker government, despite no longer commanding a majority in either house of the federal Parliament.

Bart De Wever’s separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) refuses any governing agreement that does not provide substantial additional powers to the regions and communities (Belgium is made up of three regions and three linguistic communities, each with its own parliament and government, though the Flemish community and region have merged their institutions). With his almost 32% of the vote among Dutch-speakers in the past election, mainstream Flemish parties have more or less acted in lockstep with De Wever, fearing that they might haemorrhage further support to the once-marginal N-VA. At the same time, though francophones have been willing to make some concessions, they have insisted that Belgium must remain a strong federation with many powers still in the hands of the central government, and have also made a point of defending French-speaking minorities in the Flemish region.

As a result, attempt after attempt at forming any kind of coalition has gone nowhere. Various political personalities have been drafted in from the different parties under various titles – informateur, préformateur, médiateur, clarificateur, médiateur (again) and informateur (again) – all to no avail. Few believe that the current informateur, Didier Reynders, current outgoing finance minister and francophone liberal, will succeed in making any progress. The problem seems to be that neither side fully trusts the other.

But what if Belgians from both sides of the divides look overseas? That’s what Harvard professor and negotiation specialist Robert Mnookin has suggested in a recent interview in L’Echo:

I would suggest naming a neutral mediator – someone who is neither Flemish nor Francophone. Preferably, even someone from outside Belgium, who would be considered as neutral and would have no political ambition in the country. Someone well-versed in negotiating, respected by all of the parties. I know one perfect candidate: Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president. He resolved particularly complex situations in regions and countries like Namibia, Aceh and Kosovo…

It’d be unconventional, and perhaps would be seen as a symbol of a more general inability of the two peoples to even talk to one another any more. It’d certainly be a first in Western Europe, as far as I’m aware, though it’s been tried further East. However, it might just work. There’s a lack of trust right now between the Flemish and the French-speakers. And every politician that has tried to mend that trust has failed precisely because there was a perception of bias towards one linguistic group or the other. In order to craft some kind of pact that can define the relationship between the country’s two main communities for the next 20 or 30 years, both parties need to feel like they’re making equal concessions – that neither grouping is at an advantage or disadvantage. Maybe this is the only way to achieve that.

Nevertheless, it’s sad that we’ve come to this. It really does feel like two children arguing over a chocolate cake, and now the only way we can get them to shut up is to bring an adult in to slap some sense into them. Belgians are better than this. I’d like to think that it’s just the country’s political class that’s this immature – and there’s no doubt a good deal of truth in that – but both sides are increasingly distant from one another, and share less and less in terms of any kind of common identity beyond beer, football and the King (to paraphrase Yves Leterme). I really do hope that someone – anyone – can resolve the current disputes and get people talking again, but I do sometimes fear that this truly is the beginning of the end for Belgium. I hope I’m wrong, though.

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