Op-eds and Articles

How Belgium Survived 20 Months Without a Government

By / 10.11.2013

If you think a few days of “government shutdown” in the U.S. is bad, consider that in 2010-2011, Belgium had a political crisis that prevented formation of a government for 589 days. What may be most surprising, though, is that the Belgians found a way to keep their government programs and services running without serious interruption.

Belgians are far more divided than Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., split between a wealthier Flemish-speaking north with 60 percent of the population and a less prosperous French-speaking south. The cultural distinctions, linguistic antagonism, and regional separation between the two halves of the nation have long made it difficult to create a coherent majority in a parliament full of multiple small parties split along communal lines.

But the nation’s long-running divisions hit an all-time-low when the prime minister resigned in April 2010 and no new parliamentary majority could be established. Round after round of fruitless negotiations went on for the rest of 2010 and most of 2011. No faction or party was willing to compromise, nor could any single politician emerge as a unifying figure.

So what happened to the crucial work of Belgium’s government? Nothing much at all – things mostly went on as usual. The prior government stayed on in a “caretaking capacity” and the bureaucracy continued to hum along. As a report in Time put it: ” the absence of a government makes little difference to day-to-day life in Belgium…. Belgium deftly helmed the presidency of the E.U. in the second half of 2010, and the caretaker government last month headed off market jitters over its debt levels by quickly agreeing on a tighter budget. The country is recovering well from the downturn, with growth last year at 2.1 percent (compared with the E.U. average of 1.5%), foreign investment doubling and unemployment at 8.5 percent, well below the E.U. average of 9.4%. ‘By and large, everything still works. We get paid, buses run, schools are open,’ says Marc De Vos, a professor at Ghent University.”

Continue reading at the Washington Monthly.