On Sept. 13, the caretaker Belgian prime minister, Yves Leterme, announced that he had applied to lead the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, indicating that he would soon leave the job he has held in a temporary capacity for more than a year. Afterward, the Belgian king hurried back from a trip in France to see if he could cajole the leaders of the main eight parties in the parliament to finally form a government. Even if Belgium manages to survive its newest political crisis, it has further complicated the eurozone crisis at a very inopportune time.
(click here to enlarge image) Modern Belgium was not forged by the Belgians but was instead fashioned by compromises among the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The result of this geopolitical maneuvering was a buffer state where the interests of the four more coherent states overlapped. Belgium is the narrowest part of the North European plain, and by installing a state there, it was hoped that the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United Kingdom would have somewhat fewer conflicts. History suggests that this plan was not quite a complete success, but it also was not an abject failure. In the post-World War II era, holding Belgium together became somewhat easier. With the United States more or less occupying Western Europe, military competition in the region became a thing of the past and the Belgian buffer state was no longer a battlefield. And while intra-European tensions are certainly at a post-World War II high (and rising) right now, no one is yet even obliquely discussing the merits of using military force to address European disputes. (click here to enlarge image) But despite having existed for 140 years, the Flemings and Walloons have never knitted together into a single national identity. Belgian elections almost always create awkward coalitions, often among parties that have nearly as little to do with one another as the voting groups they represent. The most recent government fell apart in April 2010. Elections two months later produced a hung parliament, and the country has now been operating for 458 days with a caretaker government. There is little holding the state together. The military rationale for Belgium's existence has long since stopped being relevant. Belgium's neighbors would prefer to keep the country in one piece and are willing to act to prevent each other from damaging it, but there is nothing any of them can do to prevent internal forces from tearing Belgium apart. But the most significant problem for Belgium is that the method by which its political parties have papered over the ethnic differences is losing its efficacy. Since Belgium is considered an advanced, developed economy, it has been able to borrow larger volumes of cash at lower rates than most other states. Successive governments have used this financial access to fill in the gaps created by the lack of national unity, in essence bribing their constituents to ignore the inherent tensions. With the eurozone crisis in full swing, this option is no longer the easy solution it once was. Tiny Belgium now has a state debt worth about 360 billion euros ($495 billion), or about 90 percent of gross domestic product (for comparison, Portugal was forced to seek a bailout with a national debt load that was 10 percentage points lower). The only reason Belgium has so far escaped close financial scrutiny is its reputation as an advanced, developed economy.