No land in sight – and no two

No country in sight in Belgium's government crisis – but neither are two. Despite all the separatist desires in the northern part of the country, Flanders, which is part of the problem. Monday marks exactly one year since Belgians forced by compulsory voting to go to the polls presented their politicians with a seemingly impossible task: forming a government.

Prime Minister Yves Leterme and his ministers have been in office only on an executive basis since the collapse of his coalition in April 2010. Since the elections, King Albert II. always new politicians to scouts or mediators to sound out the chances of forming a government. Now it's the turn of Francophone Socialist Elio di Rupo – he was given the suicide mission in mid-May. Whether he succeeds is written in the stars.

Belgium's citizens submit without major rebellion. Although party offices are sometimes occupied, demonstrations also take place. Already at the end of January, 35.000 people in Brussels call on politicians to break the endless stalemate and finally form a government. But also rather surreal suggestions like that of an unbridled beard growth with men up to a government formation or that of a sex strike of the women remained without the desired effect.

A country on hold
A caretaker government that now only manages "affaires courantes," "lopende zaken," or "current affairs". Observers think the supposed Belgian virtue of compromise only worked as long as there was enough money to do so – or new debt could be incurred without restraint.

And the church? It holds back. One of the few institutions still functioning across language barriers, the Belgian Bishops' Conference is actually an indication that Belgium might be viable as a state. The bishops' conference president, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, a Francophone, speaks Flemish as well as his predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, a Fleming, speaks French. But official statements on the subject from the bishops are almost non-existent.

Only Leonard ventured a little out of the closet at Easter. Just recently, the church was once again in the headlines when Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned because of abuse, caused a storm of indignation with a TV interview. The Archbishop of Brussels addressed the politicians, saying that his bilingual archdiocese was a good example of how tolerance and respect could be lived out and how neighborly coexistence could succeed. Leonard has three auxiliary bishops – one each for the Flemish, the Walloon and the Brussels part of the diocese.

"Francophone arrogance"
Leonard had earlier in an interview urged his Francophone compatriots to show more willingness to compromise. The statement found practically no echo in public. When he recently spoke again of "francophone arrogance," he met with opposition in his own camp – but even in Flanders his statement was not taken up. Finally, the archbishop participated in a "National Evening of Prayer" for Belgium at the Koekelberg Basilica in Brussels at the end of May, which was attended by about 400 people at the invitation of new spiritual communities. "Historical contradictions" must be overcome, he said then. "Healing, remembering and forgiving" are the watchwords to overcome the crisis, he said. This also went virtually uncommented upon.

In any case, Belgium's bishops have largely withdrawn from the public debate. If there used to be statements on euthanasia, asylum law and other ies affecting politics, church leaders are now silent. Obviously, the abuse scandal has greatly unsettled them. Observers get the impression that the church wants to avoid creating additional potential attack surfaces through pointed reactions.

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Christina Cherry
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