Belgium: A role model for the rest of Europe?

November 24, 2011

By Mark Hillary. The opinions expressed are his own.

In addition to the economic meltdown, there is another political story in Europe at present – Belgium.

I’m not referring to the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Adventures of Tintin’ movie – though it might be argued that Captain Haddock bears a passing resemblance to several much-missed British political figures, thanks to the trademark slur.

I mean the government. Or lack of one. As I write, it is now 530 days since Belgium actually had a functioning Cabinet making decisions and showing political leadership – or actually doing anything.

They didn’t need an Occupy movement to destroy the government in Belgium. They just needed a general election where the votes were spread so thinly across so many political parties that it became impossible to form a coalition that could then appoint Cabinet representatives.

At the election in June last year, 11 parties won a place in the Chamber of Representatives, and since then the horse-trading over who will take seats in Cabinet has continued. It was June this year when Belgium passed the previous holder of the dubious honour of being the slowest country to ever form a government – Cambodia.

Without digging too deep into the background of the Belgian problem – and speculation over partition – I am surprised that failure to form a government in a western European nation has sailed under the radar of most people commenting on the European economic and political maelstrom.

Economists are now presenting unified European bonds as the answer to the euro zone crisis. A joint currency project should also require a much closer union on the ability to borrow – something the British pointed out years ago when they passed up the opportunity to join the euro. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The Occupy protestors are vocally trying to draw attention to a myriad of issues; the lack of affordable housing, the growth of slums in major western European cities, the unfairness of executive pay, job insecurity, the greed of bankers… it’s a kind of no future agenda that has no real answer.

If only we could blow up the world in the style of Lars von Trier, sending an Ark of fine human specimens to Mars to start all over again. Would this society of the future ever choose to rebuild finance and politics in the present image we see in Europe?

It is worth remembering that the English word ‘politics’ derives from Greek, meaning of, for, or relating to the people. It once meant the process of collective decision-making that politics used to be about. This is becoming more and more important to the people of Europe, and the U.S. where their dysfunctional political system keeps ever more stand-up comics in business.

Many ordinary hard-working people don’t like the Occupy protestors and their greasy hair. My mum doesn’t. But even the people who don’t like the children of Swampy have to confess that they are not feeling good about the way Europe is being governed.

The latest British wheeze is to reduce worker rights. If it is easier to hire and fire in the UK then we won’t have any of those pesky unions or employment tribunals – goes the government mantra.

But some rights – such as discrimination – apply from day one in British jobs. Does anyone want to bet that age and race discrimination claims will soar once the regular employment tribunal route to justice is removed? If the biggest problem in the economy is a failure of consumers to spend, because of a perception that their job is insecure, then this could be the single worst policy of the administration.

There seems to be a perfect storm developing. Ordinary people are on the streets protesting in a way we have never seen before. The bankers – and senior executives in all industries – are still giving themselves bonuses that don’t reflect achievement or contribution to society. The economies of Europe are lining up like dominoes and the politicians are hopping around like the Keystone cops, ready to try anything that will preserve life as we used to know it.

Perhaps Belgium really is the role model for the rest of Europe. No government. No way to argue about the euro. No way to legislate. No worries.

Image — Empty seats are seen before a plenary session of the Belgian Senate in Brussels October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoi


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