Posts Tagged 'belgium'

Down but not out: Golden Dawn rears its head again

By Harry van Versendaal

Draped across Golden Dawn party offices in a northern Athens suburb, a large white banner proudly proclaimed: “It takes a Metaxas to say No.”

“Ochi” (No) Day, when Greece refused to be annexed by a Mussolini-led Italy in 1940, is celebrated in the country as a national holiday, but most prefer to brush aside the fact that Ioannis Metaxas was a dictator.

“Golden Dawn voters are drawn to power. A lot of them voted for the party because they wanted someone big and strong to stand up to the political status quo,” says Paschos Mandravelis, a liberal commentator.

In September, a Golden Dawn member stabbed to death an anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, in a Piraeus neighborhood. The public outcry over his death prompted the government to arrest dozens of party members, including parliamentary deputies and Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos. The charges include homicide, blackmail and running a criminal organization.

Mandravelis believed that the crackdown would drive away a big chunk of the neo-Nazi party’s voters. “I expected that the sight of Golden Dawn members in handcuffs would remind people that there is a force larger than them, that these guys were not that untouchable after all, and as a result their popularity would be reined in,” he says.

That has not happened. Nearly two months after the launch of a judicial investigation into the neo-Nazi party – which is reportedly linked to 10 murders, as well as attempted murder, blackmail, money laundering and other crimes – public surveys suggest that despite the aura of criminality around Golden Dawn, its popularity has not been hit.

An ALCO poll conducted between November 12 and 15 for Sunday’s Proto Thema newspaper put Golden Dawn, which controls 18 seats in the 300-strong House, in third place with 8.8 percent, up from 6.6 in a previous poll carried out a month earlier. A Pulse survey for To Pontiki weekly between November 8 and 12 put the party even higher at 10.5 percent and clearly ahead of the once-dominant PASOK socialists, withering at 6.5 percent. A Metron Analysis poll for Ethnos on Sunday put support for Golden Dawn at 10 percent, more than 2 percentage points higher than a month earlier.

Lack of trust

Part of the reason behind Golden Dawn’s enduring appeal, experts say, lies with Greeks’ notorious lack of confidence in institutions. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. This mistrust extends to the local media, which is usually owned by big business conglomerates considered to be compromised by their ties to political parties and whose stories are often seen as an extension of the status quo.

“When the integrity of all social and political institutions is being questioned, faith in the media is also lost,” Mandravelis says. Some Greeks are so suspicious of the status quo, he says, that the crackdown simply confirmed already-held convictions and conspiracy theories.

“The media are viewed with mistrust. All those people who think that everything is the result of a global conspiracy also believe that revelations about Golden Dawn are a part of this conspiracy,” he says.

MPs of Golden Dawn, which was recently stripped of state funding after a vote by fellow MPs, have – rather predictably – styled themselves as martyrs waging a battle against a corrupt establishment. Party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris on Monday called on supporters to join a rally in central Athens on Saturday to demand the release of Michaloliakos and two other detained lawmakers whom he described as “political prisoners.” Their detention, he said, was a “constitutional deviation” and a “political frame-up.”

“Although the involvement of Golden Dawn in Fyssas’s assassination is likely to have weakened the party’s appeal among non-core supporters, Golden Dawn’s purported victimization has clearly boosted support among its core – i.e. young, male, anti-systemic voters,” says Elias Dinas, a UK-based expert on voter behavior.

Whereas it was once considered taboo to endorse Golden Dawn publicly, over recent months a number of high-profile figures have been happy to admit their admiration for the extremist party. Vocalist Petros Gaitanos, famous for his performances of the Byzantine liturgy, pop singer Yiannis Ploutarchos or the idiosyncratic Notis Sfakianakis, have bashed the “corrupt” establishment and openly voiced their support for Golden Dawn.

In a much-publicized outburst last week, singer Sfakianakis praised Greece’s 1967-74 military dictatorship, urged support for Golden Dawn and called Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos a “pig.” Sfakianakis’s comments prompted pop diva Despina Vandi to announce that she would be breaking off her on-stage collaboration with him in Athens.

These, and other similar comments, feed into the feeling of mistrust of the state and mainstream media, which is not unique to the right of the political spectrum.

Critics from the left have accused the government of not actually being interested in bringing alleged criminals to justice, but rather intent on marginalizing an upstart that is siphoning voters away from the two coalition parties. In the June 2012 election, four out of 10 Greeks who cast their vote for Golden Dawn were former New Democracy supporters.

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens and an expert on right-wing radicalism, notes that a large portion of the anti-fascist movement in Greece thinks that the whole Golden Dawn clampdown is a bit “fishy.”

“When the main enemies of Golden Dawn are skeptical about the authorities’ intentions, there is little you can hope for from those who are ideologically closer to the party,” she says.

Data suggest that in the 10 days following the clampdown, Golden Dawn saw its power drop by about 2 percent. Interestingly, the decline stopped as party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and two senior lawmakers were put behind bars pending trial on charges of participation in a criminal group. Their police protection was also pulled.

On November 1, four days after Ochi Day, two Golden Dawn members, Manolis Kapelonis, 23, and Giorgos Fountoulis, 26, were gunned down at point-blank range underneath the Metaxas banner as they patrolled outside the party’s offices in the Athens suburb of Neo Iraklio, rekindling the party’s ratings.

A previously unknown group, the Militant People’s Revolutionary Forces, claimed responsibility for the killings. In an 18-page proclamation, the organization said the attack had been carried out in retaliation for the stabbing of Fyssas. Police have not confirmed the authenticity of the claim.

“The killings brought Golden Dawn into an ideal position. It was able to sell the argument that it is the victim of a conspiracy, as it has long insisted,” Georgiadou says.

The martyr effect has been observed before, most memorably in the Netherlands. After Dutch right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn was shot dead in 2002, his party went on to win an unprecedented 17 percent of the vote in elections.

Evolution pattern

Analysts agree that containing Golden Dawn’s momentum is a daunting task. Part of the challenge lies with the party’s structure and evolution pattern. Unlike mainstream political parties, Europe’s extremist groupings have mostly sought to expand their leverage using regional strongholds as springboards – a model seen at work in Antwerp, the base of Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Belang, and in Carinthia, the bastion of Austria’s Freedom Party. Extremists use these strongholds to carry out on-the-ground, grassroots work that allows them to directly engage with local community groups, often posing as guardians. Golden Dawn picked Aghios Panteleimonas, a high-crime, low-income neighborhood in central Athens with a large immigrant population, as well as the poor shipbuilding district of Perama, outside Piraeus.

For the past few years, Georgiadou and Lamprini Rori, a researcher on Golden Dawn and PhD candidate at the University of Paris (I), have studied how the party has used the neighborhoods as bastions to build a strong social network and at the same time bolster its visibility. It was in Perama, she says, that Golden Dawn succeeded in gradually becoming the main receptacle for unemployment-hit working-class voters who had formerly been taken under the wing of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) – a process reminiscent of “left LePenism” in France during the 1990s.

“If you really want to curb the influence of Golden Dawn, you have to cripple its strongholds,” Georgiadou says.

Can the influence of Golden Dawn be contained? If there is one thing analysts agree on, it is that any progress will take time.

“It will not be a fast decline,” Georgiadou says. “And it will only occur provided that all hell does not break loose, sending Greece back to 2009. It is also crucial that the judicial investigation does not stall. Should the case move ahead, it will help undermine the influence of the organization.”

Greek lawmakers last month voted to strip a number of Golden Dawn deputies of their immunity to make way for a deeper investigation into allegations against them.

Three of them faced magistrates on Monday to defend themselves on charges of belonging to a criminal organization – the same charges that have been brought against Michaloliakos and another five deputies.

The three were given until December 7 to prepare their defense after asking for more time to look through the bulky case file.

Any political message, Mandravelis says, will take longer to hit home with this section of society than others.

“The deliberations in this lower level of support for Golden Dawn take time – this is not a group of people that contemplates politics or takes a long, hard look at things,” he says.

Out of touch

Driving the message home will also depend on the ability of the political class to reconnect with a disaffected section of society used to selling their vote in exchange for party favors.

“Mainstream politicians have lost touch with the working classes. In the good old days they were able to control them through patronage. They gave them jobs and had their vote in return,” Mandravelis says.

“But now that the client state is in ruins, politicians have to figure out new ways to get those people back.”

Dinas is rather pessimistic about the chances of eliminating Golden Dawn’s influence. He says that the absence of rigid political ties to established parties, as a result of voters’ frustration with the brutal debt crisis and reduced opportunity for patronage, has worked to the benefit of the self-styled anti-establishment party.

“It seems that we will have to learn to coexist with an anti-democratic wing in the Parliament which will probably continue to attract approximately one out of 12 voters,” Dinas says.

Mandravelis remains optimistic that the power of the party will wane, sooner or later. “Whatever inflates quickly, usually deflates just as fast. But it will take a symbolic event for this to happen,” the commentator says.

Although the party itself may eventually be eclipsed, the ideas that propelled it into being look like they are here to stay.

“The values and ideas that Golden Dawn stands for – nationalism, racism and xenophobia – are not alien to Greece. They were not brought here by Golden Dawn; the truth is they already existed,” says Mandravelis.

Dinas shares the concern. “Even if you eliminate the supply,” he says, “it does not mean that you can fully wipe out demand.”

[A slightly modified version of this article frist appeared on]


Taking on the pigheaded

By Harry van Versendaal

Speak to Sonja Giese and you’ll immediately understand that the dominant belief that has us think Greeks are an object of stereotyping by everyone in Germany is no more than a stereotype itself.

“Since the outbreak of the crisis, Greek people have been portrayed by the German yellow press and many mainstream media as liars, cheaters, lazy bums and parasites,” she says of the bad publicity the debt-wracked nation has received since striking a bailout deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.

“They have been told to sell their islands, to open ‘gyros’ bank accounts, to leave the eurozone and to go to hell,” she says.

Working at the Press and Communications Unit of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament in Brussels, the 32-year-old German knows a thing or two about media stereotyping and perceived prejudice.

“Stereotyping is a common tool used by the media, in advertising and in politics,” she says.

It’s hard to disagree. The European tabloids have been awash with stories about lazy, feckless, work-shy Greeks often recycling exaggerated or simply false data about the country. Experts and politicians at home and abroad have not exactly helped to debunk the recurring myths about Greece.

Visiting Athens earlier this month, European Central Bank executive board member Joerg Asmussen said it was difficult to convince people in states such as Estonia and Slovakia, where the average wage is 1,000 euros, to lend to a country where the average wage in the state sector is about 3,000 euros. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has in the past suggested Greeks don’t work hard enough and take too much vacation time off. If such hyperbole comes from the lips of high-ranking politicians and bankers, there’s not much one can expect from a sensationalist tabloid in Germany or Britain.

Frustrated with the abuse of Greece and the continent’s other so-called profligate eurozone nations, Giese decided to actually do something to fix some of the damage. Together with Mareike Lambertz, a 24-year-old freelance journalist from Belgium, she is launching a photojournalism project titled “We Are the Pigs: A Road Trip to the Epicenter of the Crisis” — a reference to the unflattering acronym used to describe the troubled economies of the European periphery: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

Between them, the pair have plenty of experience in journalism and the audiovisual field — as well as a soft spot for good old black-and-white photography. And they plan to put it to good use. Setting off from Thessaloniki, northern Greece, in early August, Giese and Lambertz plan to tour the so-called PIIGS countries seeking to collect and record personal stories of ordinary people who have been hit by the economic meltdown — but also of people who have not been affected at all. The idea, Giese says, is to show people’s faces, to visit their favorite hangouts and former working spaces, to meet with their friends and families, to document how they deal with everyday life in times of social and economic crisis. “But there is no ready-made script or agenda. We want to be as open-minded as possible,” Giese says.

“We want to show an alternative view of the Greek people. Using photographs and words, we want to show a small part of a reality that is beyond GDP figures, stock markets and rating agencies,” she explains, warning that to target any individual nation is to undermine the European home at large.

“There is no such thing as ‘The Greeks’ or ‘The Germans.’ Stereotyping Greek people as being lazy and untruthful leads to national prejudices among the people of Europe,” she says.

Instead of relying on commissions, Giese and Lambertz are using Startnext, a German crowdfunding platform, to raise money for their project. The duo have already agreed that various newspapers and magazines will run some of their stories and portraits. The work is scheduled to go on display in Brussels, Berlin and Eupen but the list of shows could grow by the time they wrap up the project.

“We want to show our work to a public that is curious and critical about what is going on in Europe. Our goal is to share information and try to change the way it flows.”

Unwanted masses on the move


Photo by Natalia Tsoukala


By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”

Preparing for D-day

By Harry van Versendaal

It was 1995 when Juul Bovenberg’s father became seriously ill. After a short but painful spell on his sickbed, Mr Bovenberg asked his GP to take away his suffering by taking away his life. The family and the doctor agreed to the man’s final wish to choose a dignified death over endless, unavoidable pain.

When the GP visited the house to carry out the euthanasia, for once Bovenberg’s attention was not focused on her ill father. In fact, the 23-year-old Juul could not help stare at the man who had come to end her father’s life.

“I noticed how nervous he was. His whole body was shivering, and I saw his relief after he was done. As his car left the driveway, I realized how difficult this must have been for him. He was the one to actually pull the trigger. I asked myself: How will he return home; what does he feel right now?” she explains now.

But it would be years before Bovenberg, a Dutch filmmaker in her late 30s, would begin to search for an answer. In 2009, she made a documentary inspired by that incident. “A Deadly Dilemma: Euthanasia from a Doctor’s Perspective” – which was screened last week at the 2nd International Health Film Festival on Kos – follows three Dutch GPs during each of their preparations for and the sequel to performing euthanasia on one of their patients. The movie, which won the jury’s second prize for medium-length films, came after last year’s screening of John Zaritsky’s “The Suicide Tourist,” a compelling documentary about an American Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient’s decision to make use of assisted suicide in a Swiss clinic.

Voluntary euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands since 2002. Doctors are allowed to help terminally ill patients to die, provided they follow a set of strict regulations designed to prevent abuse. Patients must be terminally ill adults facing a future of “unbearable” suffering. They must have made a voluntary, considered and persistent request to die, while a second, independent physician must give the green light before the procedure is carried out. Holland was one of the first countries to legalize mercy killing, although the practice had been unofficially tolerated for decades.

Voluntary euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, which has also been legalized in Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland and the US states of Oregon and Washington, is still very much the subject of controversy involving moral, medical, religious and philosophical questions. Notwithstanding the title of Bovenberg’s documentary, the doctors featuring in it seem to have no second thoughts about the ethics of the practice. What they do seem to carry is the mammoth emotional burden about being the ones to shut down the circuit. “You are not trained to kill someone,” one of them says in the movie. An ethical decision is not necessarily an easy decision.

“I didn’t want to make a film about the moral aspect of euthanasia,” Bovenberg says. “It is about the feelings of GPs in a country where euthanasia is legal. Even for doctors that morally accept euthanasia, it remains a heavy subject, having to apply it. A lot of people have the wrong idea about euthanasia in the Netherlands, as if this does not mean anything to a doctor. But a doctor has feelings too.”

In the movie, we see the doctors holding their regular meetings with their terminally ill patients, discussing with them and their relatives as they regress. The process is emotionally difficult and, in some cases, practically almost impossible. A heavily paralyzed woman suffering from ALS struggles to communicate with the doctor by moving her thumb and, when this becomes impossible, with slight nods of her head. Her husband sits alone in the backyard. The doctor is worried that her rapidly deteriorating patient will soon no longer be able to give her (legally required) consent. In the end, she doesn’t have to, as the woman dies of natural causes.

Another doctor frequents the gym to sweat out his stress. He chats with colleagues and takes care of “normal” patients. And then comes D-day. He prepares the lethal potion. Driving his car to the house of his patient, a shockingly calm and cool-headed man suffering from a hereditary metabolic disease, the poison sitting in a brown bag on the back seat, he wonders about his patient’s feelings about physical contact. “Is he the type to hug and embrace?”

Bovenberg, who lives on a houseboat in Amsterdam, studied documentary and production at the Dutch Film and Television Academy (NFTVA) in Amsterdam. She is the winner of the prestigious Nipkowschijf award for the VPRO Dutch television series “Veldpost.” Her “Looking for Loedertje” was nominated for the Dutch Academy Award while “Laura is my Father” was nominated at the Cinekid Festival. “A Deadly Dilemma” is her twelfth movie.

“Why do you do it?” the director asks the third doctor, who is preparing to end the life of a young woman who has cancer. “In the end, because of my love for my patients,” he replies.

Ultimately, they all feel they have done the right thing; they all feel relieved. But don’t get the wrong impression. “You never get used to it. It’s the hardest thing to do.”

Requiem for a nation?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Bart De Wever is not a big fan of Belgium. In fact, he would eventually like to see the nation “evaporate.” The problem is that his party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has just won an emphatic victory in the country’s general election. Is Belgium set to become the stuff of history books?

“Not yet,” says Pierre Vercauteren, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Mons. Although De Wever’s separatist party made a strong showing winning the largest number of seats in the 150-seat lower Belgian federal house, he says, that does not mean that there is an equal number of voters out there who want a divorce.

“These voters simply wanted to express a strong disappointment with the Flemish members of the outgoing coalition about the lack of success in the reform of the state which they promised in 2007,” Vercauteren said, describing the ballot outcome as “clear in its form, ambiguous in its meaning and complicated in its consequences.”

De Wever’s party won nearly 30 percent of the Flemish vote on a campaign to gradually disconnect Flanders from the rest of the country and has now entered what is expected to be protracted negotiations with the French-speaking Socialists (PS) of Elio Di Rupo, which came second nation-wide with 36 percent of the Walloon vote on the promise of increased public spending.

De Wever has said the Flemish “must be masters of their own fate” but following his victory he has watered down his separatist message. “We do not want a revolution,” Wever, a 39-year old historian, said. “We do not want to declare Flanders independent overnight. But we do believe in gradual evolution.” In an apparent bid to appease the francophone public, he suggested that he would make way for Di Rupo to be prime minister and rather pursue a deal to reform the federal state and finances – i.e. to devolve key powers to the regions. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith in yourselves,” the election winner told Wallonia voters after his victory.

“De Wever said he will not let Belgium explode but still remains deeply convinced that the end of Belgium is the future,” Vercauteren says. That would mean a slow death – but death nevertheless. For the time being, Flanders and Wallonia enjoy self-rule over employment, environment, agriculture, culture and sports but the former want to expand autonomy over health, justice and social security – a non-starter for their “dependent” cohabitants.

Since its creation in 1830, Belgium, the administrative center of the European Union, has seen little of the unity preached by the eurocrats in Brussels. Friction has been the leitmotif in the relationship between the nation’s two communities, the more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the more needy French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

The linguistic divide is evident everywhere: from political parties and boy scouts to road signs and license plates, while Brussels resembles a bilingual island at the heart of the nation. The linguistic apartheid between the 6.5 million Dutch speakers and the 4 million French speakers comes with a lot of luggage. Once a rural population looked down upon by their francophone kin, the Flemish are fed up with subsidizing their slacker neighbors. Wallonia has twice the jobless rate and 25 percent lower per-capita income. The discrepancy in the number of highway speed traps (a source of state revenue) is seen as emblematic of the divide: Flemish authorities have installed over 1,500 while the Walloon government just over 160.

A recent study by the RTL broadcasting company found 32 percent of the Flemish population want outright independence, 17 percent a confederation and 25 percent greater self-rule within Belgium.

If the past is any guide, negotiations between the different parties will be long and complicated. It took nine months for outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme to form his short-lived five-party coalition government in 2007, which collapsed over voting rights in Brussels’ suburbs.

Analysts fear that lingering uncertainty will prevent Belgium from curbing its huge debt making it, as the Financial Times put it, “the Greece of the north.” To make things more complicated, Belgium is set to take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in July. Bart Maddens, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Leuven, says it should be possible to reach an agreement by September but even so, he adds, a prolonged crisis would have little consequences for the EU presidency. “There is a functioning government and prime minister, and the EU presidency is a matter which is largely dealt with on an administrative level,” he says.

Vercauteren is also not too concerned about the fallout, as the objective of EU integration has never been questioned in any of the two camps. “After all, the presidency has been prepared for more than 18 months. The new coalition government will comprise members from the outgoing government as well as the new one so you will have smooth transition and continuity,” he says.

Even so, the sight of a squabbling nation at the helm of the EU will not be a flattering one (neither for the perennially dysfunctional 27-member bloc of course). There is a question of Belgium’s image [abroad] but as the agenda has been already prepared there will be no paralysis,” says Vercauteren.

Pragmatism should be enough to save the day but not necessarily the nation’s face abroad.

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