It’s an incredible irony of history, if you think about it, that it should be the Albert II-Leterme odd couple, a king at the end of his reign and a prime minister who rekindled the embers of identity politics, coming to the country's rescue, proclaiming the political crisis “inopportune” because it imperils the people’s well-being. They tossed that message into the troubled waters like a last lifeline, but one has to wonder today how many people in the north of the country [i.e. Flemish-speaking Flanders] will actually reach for it.

Three years ago we watched dumbfounded as the historic vote took place, Flemings versus Francophones, calling for the partitioning of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV). A certain idea of Belgium died that day.

Yesterday Belgians were amazed to find their country plunged into an indescribable and incomprehensible chaos, apparently ungoverned and near-ungovernable. Hence the question, after all these months of endless negotiations, linguistic invective and communautarian strife: Is Belgium, tel quel, really viable?

What happened yesterday is serious. Through an unprecedented use of force, the Flemish parties instrumentalised the parliamentary assemblies, trying to use their majority to force a vote on BHV that the minority didn’t want, and all of that based on highly questionable legal arguments. But who was about to stop them? Could they be stopped at all? For a few moments there was nothing but an immense void in response to these questions. A power vacuum. There are countries in which the armed forces take advantage of moments of vacillation to stage a coup. Fortunately, we are not such a nation. But we’ve got our demons too. They took the shape of a group of right-wing extremists standing up and triumphantly singing Vlaamse Leeuw [the Flemish anthem] in the middle of the parliamentary chamber, with no-one there to bar their entry into this symbolic bastion of federal democracy, no-one to stop their profanation. That was a chilling moment indeed, which inflicted an ignominious stain on the country’s image. Needless to say, that was the act of a bunch of fanatics. But yesterday we simply couldn’t help seeing it as a symbol of a country which, rocked by one crisis after another, could end up right where the Vlaams Belang and the N-VA want it.

There is no getting away from the question:

Is there still any point in maintaining this country if nobody knows whether the next elections will even be legal? And where the law of the majority now prevails unchecked?

Is there still any point in maintaining a country in which there are no longer any men and women or systems capable of forging even diluted versions of the compromises indispensable to Belgium’s continued existence?

Is there still any point, as Jean-Luc Dehaene said, in wanting to make people live together, understand one another, work together, if their convictions are utterly irreconcilable?

Is there still any point in fighting for months over voting districts, housing codes, burgomasters’ appointments, without ever again finding solutions?

Is there still any point in agreeing compromises that are called into question within a couple months’ time, in keeping a federal state afloat with bits of string and wood (replete with conflicts of interest, alarm bells, "bomb disposal experts" [to diffuse tense issues], and "explorers" [to sound out coalition partners])?

This morning some Flemish people will be saying it’s all the fault of the Francophones who never want to give an inch and are always taking the Flemish for a ride. Some Francophones will be saying it’s all the fault of the Flemish who want to kick the French speakers out of Flanders. But if there are no Flemish and Francophones left to quit bickering and reach an agreement enabling the country to weather the storm and paving the way for a shared future, then we’ll really have to ask without lying to ourselves: does Belgium still make any sense? – and accept the consequences. Then we’ll have to come to terms with it and move on. Even if that means saying the Flemish nationalists were right? Yes, because then they will have won the day.

Does this country still make any sense? We still think so. But that opinion doesn’t count for much unless there are enough of us who believe in the idea and are willing to strive towards its fulfilment. If the major crisis that broke out yesterday persists, that will go to show that those aspirations no longer exist. Regrettably, that was the prevailing sentiment yesterday.

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