TIME TO CALL IT A DAY
Sep 6th 2007 Sometimes it is right for a country to recognise that its job is done
A RECENT glance at the Low Countries revealed that, nearly three monthsafter its latest general election, Belgium was still without a new government. It may have acquired one by now. But, if so, will anyone notice? And, if not, will anyone mind? Even the Belgians appear indifferent. And what they think of the government they may well think of the country. If Belgium did not already exist, would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it? Such questions could be asked of many countries. Belgium's problem, if such it is, is that they are being asked by the inhabitants themselves.True, in opinion polls most Belgians say they want to keep the show on the road. But when they vote, as they did on June 10th, they do so along linguistic lines, the French-speaking Walloons in the south forFrench-speaking parties, the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north forDutch-speaking parties. The two groups do not get on--hence the inability to form a government. They lead parallel lives, largely in ignorance of each other. They do, however, think they know themselves:when a French-language television programme was interrupted last December with a spoof news flash announcing that the Flemish parliament had declared independence, the king had fled and Belgium had dissolved, it was widely believed. No wonder. The prime minister designate thinks Belgians have nothing incommon except "the king, the football team, some beers", and he describes their country as an "accident of history". In truth, it isn't. When it was created in 1831, it served more than one purpose. It relieved its people of various discriminatory practices imposed on them by their Dutch rulers. And it suited Britain and France to have a new,neutral state rather than a source of instability that might, so soon after the Napoleonic wars, set off more turbulence in Europe. The upshot was neither an unmitigated success nor an unmitigated failure. Belgium industrialised fast; grabbed a large part of Africa and ruled it particularly rapaciously; was itself invaded and occupiedby Germany, not once but twice; and then cleverly secured the headquarters of what is now the European Union. Along the way it produced Magritte, Simenon, Tintin, the saxophone and a lot of chocolate. Also FRITES. No doubt more good things can come out of the swathe of territory once occupied by a tribe known to the Romans as the Belgae. For that, though, they do not need Belgium: they can emerge just as readily from two or three new mini-states, or perhaps from an enlarged France and Netherlands. Brussels can devote itself to becoming the bureaucratic capital of Europe. It no longer enjoys the heady atmosphere of liberty that swirled outside its opera house in 1830, intoxicating the demonstrators whose protests set the Belgians on the road to independence. The air today is more fetid. With freedom now taken for granted, the old animosities are ill suppressed. Rancour is ever-present and the country has become a freak of nature, a state in which power is so devolved that government is an abhorred vacuum. In short, Belgium has served itspurpose. A praline divorce is in order. Belgians need not feel too sad. Countries come and go. And perhaps away can be found to keep the king, if he is still wanted. Since he has never had a country--he has always just been king of the Belgians--he will not miss Belgium. Maybe he can rule a new-old country called Gaul.But king of the Gauloises doesn't sound quite right, does it?