July 5th, 2011
10:00 AM ET

Why Belgium has no government

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Here in the United States, our politicians seem unable to agree on anything. Well, there's one country that's more divided than we are, so divided in fact its people can't even decide on who should run it.

Belgium has now gone through some 385 days without a functional government. Listen to its story. There might be some lessons in it for us.

When Belgium last went to the polls, now more than a year ago, the party that won the most seats was called the New Flemish Alliance. The alliance's main aim is to split the country in two - not politically but physically.

You see a slight majority of Belgium's population, the Flemish, speaks Dutch and lives in the north of the country in Flanders. A minority of the country speaks French and lives in the south of the nation in Wallonia. And the winning party wants to take their majority and split into an independent nation.

Already the country is divided at every level, almost every public service you can think of, schools, hospitals and they are split along the lines of language. There are French schools and Flemish schools, Flemish hospitals and French hospitals and so on.

Then Brussels, it is the capital of Belgium and the Flanders, but Brussels is French speaking, which is why it is also the capital of the European Union. So if you partition the country, the French-speaking capital would end up in the Dutch-speaking Flanders.

All clear?

You wouldn't normally compare Belgium with Iraq, but that's the country with the previous longest record without a government.  For 249 days the Iraqi Parliament could not decide how to form a government and then it took another 40 days for that government to actually assume power. Iraq's democratic experiment was much maligned at the time. It was falling down while taking its baby steps of democracy.

But the Belgians have had a bit more practice. The country gained its independence and started its current form of government in 1830.

So you think we are divided?

Well, now you know about the Belgians, but they're still surviving.

How? Well, the people of Belgium seem to do is grin and bear it. Some Belgians quite literally did that, stripping down in the cold winter to make a point.

On February 17th, the day when by some counts Belgium overtook Iraq as the country with the most days without a government, Belgians marked it in style: street parties, deejays tuning out music, funky costumes, they had it all.

And there were some political messages. In Dutch-speaking Flanders, locals handed out free French fries while in French-speaking Wallonia, you could swig some free beer.

Some went as far as to create a fake government website. It had this message, "Government not found. The requested government was not found in this country, please come back...well...later."

We live in an era of unrest and political uncertainty in many parts of the world. So you have to hand it to the people of Belgium. They're taking it in their stride with an admirable sense of humor.

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Topics: Europe • GPS Show • Politics • What in the World?

soundoff (67 Responses)
  1. Lucas

    Not unimportant: the walloons receive several billions (euros) per year from flanders, not because flanders wants to give it or because they do something for it, but because the belgian financial structures are idiotic and can only be changed with the approval of the walloons, which of course they don't give.
    The thanks for all this money comes in the form that wallonia blocks the political wishes of flanders. Flanders is also more densely populated than wallonia, flanders wants a more strict immigration and asylum policy, the walloons don't, because they expect (north-african, etc.) foreigners would mostly speak french and thereby would help to make the country and especially Brussels even more french-speaking.
    The walloons have always just said “no” to what flanders politically wanted, the flemish being afraid of conflict always gave in, until now. Besides, this crisis is absolutely not about the flemish wanting to split the country, they just want an ordinary state reform which would give the country parts a bit more own governmental control, far from completely. And the walloons keep saying “no”, because they want the money and Brussels (and by the way also some flemish communities on the border of Brussels). It's not about splitting yet, but it should be.

    July 16, 2011 at 6:53 am |
  2. JamesH

    Belgium more divided than the US? Give me a break and do a little more research next time... at least over there both sides can agree on things like: everyone should have access to health care and rich people should pay more taxes than the poor.

    July 27, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  3. Mark Russell

    The existance of Belgium is a myth.

    August 3, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
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