I decided on a whim to check into Belgium’s health today, because it dawned on me that I hadn’t heard anything lately about how the country was going to hell in a hand basket without a government. The Belgians, you see, have had no functioning national leaders for many a moon now. To be precise, it’s been 347 days. Sure, the country has high debt, and that worries investors and speculators (just as they are spooked by Irish and Greek balance sheets), but that factor largely predates the record gridlock that has rendered Belgium’s politicians powerless — and harmless too.
How are Belgium’s citizens coping? No worries. According to a recent Time article, life is pretty much exactly the same. Trash gets picked up as before. Firefighters extinguish blazes as before. Scofflaws are arrested and tried as before. Teachers get paid to educate students as before. That’s because all those tasks are in the hands of provinces and municipalities that require no urgent input from the parliament in Brussels.
Lots of people seem to be kind of enjoying the dearth of national leadership — and poking fun at the whole thing.
Belgians have already held events across the country to mark the occasion. In Leuven, in Dutch-speaking Flanders, locals handed out free French fries, while in Louvain-la-Neuve, in French-speaking Wallonia, free beer was on offer. (…) “By and large, everything still works. We get paid, buses run, schools are open,” says Marc De Vos, a professor at Ghent University and the general director of Itinera, a Brussels-based policy institute. “We can free ride for a while yet.”
After noting these facts, however, Time (a bit reflexively perhaps) takes a dim view of Belgium’s lack of government.
Most Belgians shrug at the deadlock, not caring much so long as they can still have a beer with their friends after work. And this means that even after Belgium’s politicians finally agree on a coalition, it may be too late to engage the people, says Marco Martiniello, a politics lecturer at the University of Liège. “The delays will distance people from politics,” he says. “This will have a negative impact on democracy and reinforce the gap between government and citizens. I already see a growing sense of apathy amongst my students.”
Yes, just imagine the crisis of confidence if people begin to understand — nay, experience — that a comparatively huge national (federal) government is not at all necessary for their continued wellbeing. Imagine the horror of Belgians not being sufficiently enthusiastic about their high-taxing, scandal–ridden representatives in Brussels.
I love the Belgian people, their excellent beer and food, their beautiful countryside, their easy-going attitude. Allez, mes amis, and goed zo, vrienden: I wish you many more years of gridlocked, shackled, impotent national governments.
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.