Global News Journal
Beyond the World news headlines
Is there anything more holding Belgium together than “the king, the football team and certain beers”– as Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme once said?Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia have their own political parties and their own television stations and newspapers which on any normal day could be reporting on totally separate countries.Tuesday was not one of those such days. Following Leterme’s decision to quit on Monday night, Belgium’s media at least agreed on the top story, even if few could answer the question: what next? The days ahead are likely to lead to growing debate over a central Belgian question: is it worth staying together?Belgium has evolved since 1970 from a unitary state to a federation in five phases of devolution giving regional and linguistic parliaments control over education, culture,transport and housing.The Flemish majority want more, from powers to set their own job creation schemes and to vary rates of tax. French-speakers fear that Belgium will be nothing more than an empty shell and the economic divide between rich Flemish north and their depressed south will widen.Leterme’s Flemish Christian Democrats had promised change, but his failure to broker a deal led to his resignation. Opinion polls are notoriously volatile, but a recent poll of Flemings found that more than 49 percent would welcome the country splitting in two.Even many Flemish who want a united Belgium struggle to say why, often citing the enormous headache that division would cause — how would the national debt be split and what would happen to Brussels, the largely French-speaking capital withinFlanders?During the last political crisis, less than a year ago, the capital Brussels saw a burst of colour as patriotic Belgians hung the national flag from their windows and balconies.French-speakers are mindful of the economic impact of losing their richer northern neighbours, but they too are losing patience.The demands of the two communities could simply be incompatible and the question remains — is Belgium ungovernable and incapable of reform?
It should all be music to the ears of top military brass in Brussels, Washington and at the United Nations, who have long been struggling to fill gaps in under-resourced peacekeeping missions from Africa to Afghanistan.
Although the total number of mission-fit French forces will fall to 30,000 from 50,000 under the plans, the idea is that they will be better equipped, more mobile and better able to respond to everything from terrorism to cyber-attacks.
Each side accuses the other of trying to scare voters ahead of Ireland’s referendum on the EU treaty on Thursday.
“No” groups have campaigned on issues ranging from abortion and euthanasia to taxation and Ireland’s military neutrality. They also say new decision-making mechanisms mean small states will lose influence and get trampled by the EU’s heavyweights.
The government’s response is to accuse treaty opponents of scaremongering by campaigning on emotive and extraneous issues that will not be affected by the treaty.
In some cases neutral voices are inclined to agree, with the Catholic archbishop of Dublin and referendum commission weighing in to say there is nothing in the treaty that threatens Ireland’s strict abortion and euthanasia laws.
The government warns of “dire consequences” for Ireland’s economy and diplomatic clout if a nation that has gained so much from EU support and subsidies is ungrateful enough to reject the treaty.
The “No” camp accuses the government of bullying, blackmail and exaggeration. Indeed a number of economists say that while a “Yes” vote would be best for future prosperity, rejection of the treaty is unlikely to have any severe repercussions.
So who is the biggest bully in the playground? Or is it just an inevitable flaw in referendums that they become a lightning rod for irrelevant issues and for politicians who don’t trust us to be able to debate the question we’re being asked?