Belgium: There is a life without a government

17 February 2011
De Standaard Brussels

The Belgians have proven that a country can survive without a government. Even more: a government that only takes care of day-to-day business has its silver lining. Whether the sunshine makes up for the rain is another question.

After 249 days of fruitless negotiations, it’s clear that every cloudburst heralds some fresh spring air. At long last we Belgians can also call ourselves world champions in one discipline. Those to whom the most profound thanks are owed are the outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme (CD&V) and the caretaker government, for Belgium has even been able, in some cases, to cash in on the political crisis.

In the truest sense of the word. The biggest advantage of a government with limited powers in times of cramped budgets is found in the provision on “interim twelfths". This regulation provides that the Minister receives, every month, one twelfth of the previous year's budget allocation, so long as no new budget has been adopted. This can, in practice, lead to savings, as ministers may no longer sail forth on "new initiatives". And mothballing those is better than abolishing outdated regulations. Doing nothing when coffers are empty is the best thing that can happen to this country.

The civil servants have also benefited from the situation. For example, it helped them brush up their image: just who has been keeping the country running? Who has stuck to his post and made sure the system ticks over smoothly? Exactly: the bureaucrats! Dull, boring functionaries? Quite the contrary! On guard for country and prosperity, yes sir!

Post-Council presidency depression

The authorities have done even more. In recent months they seized the opportunity to do what was necessary and urgent, things that until now had been pushed to the back burner as priority was given to rather small political projects. Specifically, they created an electronic personal pension portal, the Onlinepensionakte.

The outgoing government and the civil service have also successfully navigated their way through a EU Council Presidency. And polished our reputation too. Mostly because the ministers of the caretaker government suddenly had plenty of time.

Get committees ready? Write discussion papers? Lobby? Make sandwiches for the meetings? They did everything themselves. And they really enjoyed doing it, so much so that in some ministries the proverbial black hole yawned. Rumours were that some ministers even suffered what could be called a “post-Council presidency depression”.

In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fingers are crossed

But a caretaker government also has disadvantages. And they are legion. First, the personnel policy of the state has ground to a complete halt. Almost 300 jobs in middle management in the public service remain vacant. That means no hiring, no promotion. People have to put up with not getting paid the appropriate salary. In addition, a dozen senior management posts are vacant. Sometimes the predecessor is still around, sometimes even the successor, and sometimes neither. Had three top guns already been appointed to the NMBS (Belgian Railways), the trains could (just perhaps) be running on time today.

The reforms of some authorities have been put on ice. The Ministry of Finance, for example. "The new structure is regulated in detail, but practical implementation will have to wait," is the patient explanation. The current situation is not really harmful to the civil service. But some policies are suffering from the paralysis. First of all, at the Interior Ministry, where the hope is that no fire breaks out anywhere. Firefighters have been calling for better status for years. It’s not that Annemare Turtelboom (Open VLD, Flemish Liberal and Democrats) was averse to improving matters. She had even reached a consensus. But just a few days before the agreement was signed, the government fell.

In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fingers are crossed in the hope that Southern Sudan is not recognised too quickly as a sovereign state. Since a caretaker government cannot establish diplomatic relations, recognising the new state could be highly embarrassing. And what to do if a foreign diplomat pays a visit? No reception can be held, since that would be tantamount to formal recognition. So will the diplomat be left out on the doorstep?

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