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October 09, 2013 5:51 AM How Belgium Survived 20 Months Without a Government

By Raymond A. Smith

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.”

Two Belgian scholars at the University of Leuven further noted that the government continued to make “legitimate decisions on urgent matters, such as complying with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decisions to send troops to Libya, concluding deals to save banks, contributing capacity to support the euro, authorizing budgets for urgent needs (the prison crisis, shelters for homeless in winter time), and voting new migration legislation.” One of the major lessons learned, they concluded, was that “in mature democracies, a power vacuum is taken care of in a constructive, creative, and responsible way.”

The maintenance of services in Belgium was partly due to its extremely federalized and decentralized nature, with many tasks carried out by regions, provinces, and cities. (Much the same decentralization is serving as a buffer right now in the U.S.) But part of the explanation also lies in the healthy distinction that many European countries make between “the government” and the “state.”

Most Europeans understand “the state” to be the entity that represents a political community sharing a history and constitution, holding a seat at the U.N., and symbolically headed not by the prime minister but by a constitutional monarch or a ceremonial president. The military, the courts, and the administrative bureaucracy are all part of “the state” - and as such are apolitical and insulated from partisan rancor. By contrast, “the government” is the much smaller and more transient group of Cabinet ministers who happen to have support of a parliamentary majority at any time.

In the U.S., both in theory and in practice, the idea of the “the government” is stretched far beyond just the incumbent presidential administration to include the House and the Senate; the federal courts as a “third branch” of government; and also the huge bureaucratic infrastructure that runs the programs and services. Thus partisan tensions result not just in political stalemate but also complete “government shutdown.”

In December 2011, the Belgians were finally forced to end their squabbling by the emergence of the Euro crisis in the southern tier of the European Union. Although day-to-day administration had continued in Belgium, the caretaker government had been unable to make major new decisions or strike out in new directions. The threat of a collapse of the Euro forced Brussels - which is also the headquarters of the E.U. - to forge a consensus government, which has lasted until today. It may likewise take a crisis to force Republicans and Democrats to achieve a reasonable compromise - though in this case, it will be a crisis of their own making.

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Raymond A. Smith a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, teaches political science at Columbia and NYU and is an investigator in the Division of Gender, Sexuality, and Health at the Columbia University Medical Center. He is the author of Importing Democracy: Ideas from Around the World to Reform and Revitalize American Politics and Government and editor of The Politics of Sexuality.

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