Why the Belgian Prime Minister Might Not Really Want to Resign


International news wires are erupting with reports that Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme has tendered his resignation to King Albert II. The resignation, over Leterme's failure to resolve a complex political dispute between the country's Dutch-speaking North and French-speaking South, threatens to deadlock the government and create a national crisis. Investors, predicting catastrophe, have already downgraded Belgian sovereign bonds. But these headlines should look familiar. On July 15, 2008, Belgian Prime Minister Leterme tendered his resignation over his failure to resolve a complex political dispute between the country's Dutch-speaking North and French-speaking South. King Albert II rejected Leterme's resignation and the government limped forward. So why did Leterme try to resign at all, and why is he trying again?

Ever since the 1830 revolution, when two provinces in the Netherlands broke away to form the new state of Belgium, the young country has struggled with identity crisis. Neither the French-speaking southern province of Wallonia nor the Dutch-speaking northern province of Flanders has clear dominance. In Western Europe, a part of the world where nationalism drives political discourse and language serves as the demarcation of national identity, Belgium is truly a house divided. For nearly two centuries, ethno-cultural and linguistic conflict has consumed Belgian politics in cycles. It typically begins with a local dispute, such as the allocation of Parliamentary seats or an influx of French speakers settling in a traditionally Dutch suburb. Such conflicts might appear petty or inconsequential to an outsider, but the argument is never really about Parliamentary votes or neighborhood distribution. What's really at stake is an unresolved debate about Belgian identity: Is it Dutch first and French second? Is it the other way around? Or is there a genuinely composite Belgian identity that only needs strengthening?

Both Flemish and Walloon members of Parliament, and their outraged constituents, have been unwilling to back down from the latest dispute, over individual rights in the mixed-language district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. The Flemish liberal party pulled out of the Parliament in outrage, leaving the government with an untenable 76 out of 150 seat in the Chamber of Representatives. The Prime Minister is faced with no good choices. And so it's possible that, only by admitting defeat and submitting his resignation, as he did in July 2008 and again now, can Leterme win the trust and cooperation of Belgium's two halves. After months of building ethnic-linguistic tension, Leterme's resignation is a kind of national release valve, intentionally or not: He resigns in act of self-sacrifice, dissipating the national rage, as well as demonstrating the selflessness and unity he wishes Parliament to show, and the country begins to move on.

Of course, resignations are sometimes real. Leterme's second resignation, in December 2008, was accepted. But his wrongdoings in that case, which included charges of improperly influencing a court of appeals overseeing the sale of a major corporation, were concrete and legitimate. Surely Leterme knew in December 2008 that he had acted inappropirately and that his resignation was more than a mere gesture. But his resignations today and in July 2008, more about abstract national identity issues and political deadlock than his own failings, are more plausibly symbolic.

Even if this particular dispute is resolved, however, the underlying conflict may never be. The Belgian state is composed with an inherent tension that may only truly be solved by splitting the state in two, which nearly half of Flanders supports. The divide is deepened by Belgium's struggling economy. Wallonia, which is economically depressed, at nearly twice Flanders' unemployment rate, relies on Flemish wealth, creating resentment on both sides. These cycles of political stalemate show no sign of abating, and in fact have only accelerated with the economy's decline. At some point, the release valve may not open. And if that happens -- and it's possible that Leterme's resignation will not deescalate the conflict as it did in July 2008 -- the result could truly be political catastrophe, and Belgium may have to decide once and for all whether it will remain unified.

Image: Belgian Prime Minister Yves Lesterme. Getty Images