My Kingdom for a Norse

The citizens of this tiny little country of just 10 million woke up last week to find that they had broken a world record. Not content with owning female tennis, hurdles and pole-vaulting for the last decade, obviously not satisfied with denying the Chinese a victory in the Australian Open and kicking the Americans out of the Davis Cup, they had quite unwittingly become the first nation in the world to be without a government for more than 250 days. Unwelcome comparisons were immediately drawn between Belgium and Iraq. These were unjust, as the one is a politically moribund land of flaky backroom dealing, crumbling infrastructure and streets made unsafe by the vicious rhetoric of conflicting minorities barely able to contain their aggression, undermined by deep-rooted, systemic corruption and an overweening, bullying police force … while the other is a country in the Middle East.

But how does it feel to actually live within the frontiers of a joke, a place that is a stand-up comic’s punch line, the country that not only invented surrealism but has turned it into a political philosophy? The answer, rather surprisingly, is: not all that bad. Belgium might be suffering, but the Belgians are doing OK. Indeed, we seem to have one of the more efficient economies in Europe despite no real guidance from the centre and we are even managing to put aside some money out of the meagre pittance an undeserving state leaves us to live on. It appears we are better at saving than the average European citizen in equivalent circumstances. A very high percentage of us are home owners, an even higher proportion has some kind of diploma beyond secondary education, our universities are full and functioning healthily (which cannot be said for France, where they are overcrowded and malfunctioning critically), our house prices are stable and, according to the most recent data, most of us insist that we don’t really want to live anywhere else. This latter statement is best understood as a polite shorthand for not wanting to be forcibly or even amicably annexed by either the Germans (been there, done that) the French (been there, done that too) or the Dutch (been there, done that as well).

Laissez-faire vs laissez rien faire

So just what is it that keeps the Belgian citizen happy while the ship of state founders on the rocks of separatism? It is probably a combination of factors. One is simply political laziness. We are always ready to put up with scoundrels or incompetent fools if it means we can be a bit lax ourselves. The money we famously save is mostly what we earn on a fully-functioning black market of non-invoiced, partially invoiced or over-invoiced services. After widespread corruption was exposed within the Walloon socialist party in Charleroi, the next election did not throw the bums out, it voted them all back in again. If you’ve already made a deal with the devil about your building permit, you have an interest in keeping him in power. Why should we worry? After all we invented the saxophone as an antidote to all kinds of angst.

Another factor is a sense of identity, which while including language and culture, goes far beyond the linguistic barricades erected by those extremists who have a monstrous chip rather than a “frite” on their shoulder. The average Belgian is simply happy and contented to be a Walloon or a Flemish or a “Germanophone”. He only asks to be left in peace to mow his lawn, drink his Stella or Leffe, Hoegaarden or Jupiler and eat his steak and chips. His is a sense of self that is defined more by what he is not than by what he is. He is not someone who lives to work and he can’t speak Dutch: ergo he is Walloon. He is not someone who works to live and he chooses not to speak French, ergo he is Flemish. The language issue could for the most part be solved if everyone spoke two of the country’s three official languages. It would be even better solved if everyone learned English as a common tongue.

The deep-fried revolution

A third important factor is surely the role of the King: that monarch “of the Belgians”, though not “of Belgium”. I agree, it’s a difficult distinction to grasp, but I think it means we could all move to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland or Norway and still remain loyal to the sovereign. It also means our King could live quietly in Monaco or Lichtenstein and not be bothered any more by the likes of Elio or Bart, while still enjoying the fealty of his people.

This is a concept replete with subtle possibility in a land of otherwise limited opportunities. Because in keeping with the disenfranchised throughout history, we are beginning to see the first glimmerings of a second Belgian revolution under the banner of “no taxation without representation”. The “Camping 16” movement, like so much in this country, is virtual rather than real. By signing up to it you effectively squat the prime minister’s website while virtually squatting his house at 16 Rue de la Loi. Millions have already pitched their tents, not only there but also at the addresses of the other governments, Regional, Provincial and Communitary, of which Belgium has another six, each with its cluster of ministers and their expensive hangers-on. All are demanding the same thing: either a government that functions or their money back! Why, they argue, should we pay for services that are not being delivered, for laws that are not being made, for a budget that is not being debated? Personally I think they’re right and I’m definitely signing up. But there’s something else I would sign up for too, and that is a different kind of politics altogether.

Nordic talking

The ancient Danish “Thing” met only when necessary (the original necessary thing) and had two elected leaders: one for wartime and one for peacetime functions. Every free-born person of good character, whether male or female, was eligible for both passive and active suffrage, meaning they could vote and be voted for. The political structure of the Thing was not dependent on the idea of a proposition government and its (nominally “loyal”) opposition; neither did it require any concept of candidacy. It did not feature either factions or parties, although interest groups and powerful families were always to be reckoned with.  It was a better example of grass-roots democracy at work that even anything the Athenians produced and I cannot help feeling that if we Belgians were to move ourselves and our King to a place or time that would render such a “thing” once again possible, we should quickly resolve our difficulties and differences.

King Albert has seen so many political ombudsmen arrive at the palace with their briefcases, make a brave attempt to break the institutional deadlock, fail and leave, that he and we have long since lost count and begun to confuse their roles, their names and their positions in the public debate. While initial negotiations were up-beat and optimistic, later ones were lugubrious and the most recent have been downright suicidal in character. A permanent air of depression hangs over the offices of government and the King looks as if he has aged a decade in the last year alone. If only a few ships full of Vikings would sweep down from the North Atlantic, sack Brussels, raze Antwerp to the ground and drive the entire political class into the sea, the people would breathe more easily and the King would heave a mighty sigh of relief, even if that breath turned out to be his last.

Edwin Drood

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