Belgium’s World Record

by John Sides on April 13, 2011 · 3 comments

in Comparative Politics

The following is a guest post from David Fortunato:

As my significant other and I prepare for a long Easter weekend sipping beer and nibbling cheese in a small brewery town in West Flanders, Belgium, a panic falls over me: aside from a Sex Pistols playlist, just what does one pack when visiting a country in a state of (pseudo) anarchy?
304 days after Bart De Wever’s New Flemish Alliance won a plurality of Belgium’s Chamber of Representatives, the country (if we can call it that) still has no formal government. As winner of the elections, (in)formateur responsibilities were first allocated to De Wever but have changed hands over seven times following multiple formation failures. Most attribute the inability to form a government to disagreements over the decentralization of economic policy-making, how to fund bi-lingual Brussels, and the restructuring of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral arrondissement that offers a small advantage to French speaking parties in national elections. The majority of the difficulty stems, in one way or another, from economic differences, with the larger, wealthier Flanders growing increasingly resentful of transfers to Wallonia. While there has been media coverage congratulating Belgium on its world record accomplishment and on its comedic reactions to the impasse, some of the more interesting implications may have been missed.
A possible (though improbable) division of Belgium’s wealthy, conservative north, from its less wealthy southern counterpart has a clear parallel in the Eurozone’s approach to another Mediterrannean bailout. Although debate over Portugal is muted in comparison to Greece and Ireland, the Belgian parallel is still interesting because it implies that economic differences can easily be amplified when there is a framework of preexisting cultural divisions to nurse them. This would be easier to disregard if the differences within Belgium did not pale in comparison to the differences within Eurozone and the EU more generally and is especially interesting considering the recent entry of Estonia into the Eurozone and the lifting of labor movement restrictions for the 2004 EU expansion countries.
For political scientists, this situation highlights how we have treated (or rather, ignored) the effects of such protracted bargaining periods. While De Wever and Di Rupio debate the terms of the coalition agreement, Leterme has been, in a manner of speaking, signing the checks for almost a year in order to keep the trains running and the beer and frites flowing. Further, Belgium is in the midst of a debt crisis that must be dealt with, and right now that responsibility is falling to the caretaker (in Dutch, sorry). The specifics of this point have received almost no media coverage outside of Belgium—most likely because almost no one really understands, in general, how important caretakers may or not be or how they function. This is a shame. The activities of caretaker governments provide an interesting point of comparison to “real” governments, a possible natural control in which many features of coalition governments that may condition policy-making, though perhaps not eliminated, are at least subdued. Given the potential to increase general understanding of coalitions by studying caretakers, it surprising that we have so little to say about them and thus little insight as to how Belgium may be affected by its prolonged experiment with “anarchy”.


Eric April 13, 2011 at 2:21 pm

This could be a great opportunity to study the influence of civil servants over policy.

Matt April 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm

In order to study caretaker governments, it’s necessary to first have accurate data on when duly-mandated governments actually begin and end. It turns out that many existing data sources record the duration of bargaining delays in government formation as zero days! As a result, you cannot really use these data to study caretaker governments. This is a point made in a 2010 EJPR article by Conrad and Golder. I assume that these authors are using the data that they collected to study the effect of caretaker governments on various things.

Bancki April 15, 2011 at 3:05 am

I think you overestimate economy as the casue of friction, it’s basically an ethnic conflict, with economic disparities worsening it.

The dispute over the BHV electoral district has nothing to do with economy and can only be explained by ethnic politics: a dispute over the definition of the ethnic groups and the territorial borders between them.

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