As you might have heard Belgian PM Yves Leterme has just just resigned, again. This is the fifth time he’s quit public office, and his third exit as prime-minister. He may well be the Ziggy Stardust of Belgian poltics. Perhaps he’s always playing his last concert, but coming back once again, only a little more worn. One can sympathise. His coalition with Open VLD (Flemish liberals) collapsed over failure to reach agreement on the languages rights and privileges of French and Flemish speakers of the bilingual constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV). This shouldn’t be serious stuff, but in the Lilliputian world of Belgian politics, micro-minded obnoxiousness rules. Just ten km from Brussels, in Lennik, the local municipality requires that in order to build on bought land you must speak Flemish, or “be willing to learn it”. In another Flemish town, Linkebeek, the French-speaking mayor has not been officially appointed because he has failed to comply with similar “language rules.” You get the picture. This is a feeble central state in which the hair-splitting pettiness of town hall politics trumps national concerns.
A lovely illustration of this addiction to hair-splitting, or, as the French say, to “enculage des mouches” (i.e. the buggering of flies) comes from Le Monde. François Pirette, who has radio programme on Bel-RTl, phoned up the Belgian municipality of Dilbeek, near Brussels, passing himself off as a French-speaking Ivorian diplomat looking for information. He first got answered in Flemish by the civil servant on the other end of the line, who then confessed that although he understood and spoke French he was forbidden to use it. Pirette as Ivorian insisted he needed the info badly as one of his colleagues was looking to buy a house in the region. The civil servant broke off several times seeking permission from his superiors to do French, which he obtained, but only, as he confided to Pirette, because he was “a foreign diplomat.”
This is all laughable. But wait. The Belgian state might be foundering on disputes over trivial issues, but if you look elsewhere, most of our politics is distinguished by the same pettiness. Tonight, the three leaders of Britain’s main parties are to debate national issues in the second of three live election debates. If their last performance is anything to go by, they will be in perfect agreement on substance – immigration (a problem), Afghanistan (more helicopters), public services (slash), but will be at pains to sound distinct from each other, but will attempt to fall out on the micro-management of such issues by deploying gassy rhetoric. Trivia politics is the norm these days in mainstream poltics. A tedium, one might argue, that drives ordinary citizens to the intoxications of identity-obsessed cretins like the BNP. We are all Belgians now.