Belgium, sometimes described as a country invented in 1830 by the British to annoy the French, goes to the polls on Sunday not just for the elections to the European Parliament but for elections to its national parliament and, eventually, its next government.
However, this being Belgium, the elections may be decided on Sunday, but the next government may not be decided until months later. Following the last election in 2010, it took 541 days for the parties to agree who would form a new governing coalition.
Not that anyone would be particularly worried if, once the results are in, it looked like it might be another long wait for a new prime minister and cabinet. The 541 day gap proved that the country could function in a normal way with just a caretaker government and the civil service.
Though what passes for normal in Belgium is not quite what would be normal in any other country. Belgium is not a nation, and it is barely even a country.
Indeed, it is a truism that there is in fact just one Belgian, and he is the king, everyone else is either Flemish or Walloon.
Belgium is the lashing together of two nations, the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north with about 60 per cent of the 11m population in the north and the French-speaker Walloon in the south with about 40 per cent.
The Flemish and the Walloons and their territories were forced together into a new state named Belgium for the political convenience of the great powers of the 19th century. A neutral state was constructed so that no new Napoleon could use Flanders’ strategic Antwerp harbour to launch an invasion of England.
This artificial state is maintained now by anti-nationalist, supra-nationalist ideologues. Some see the country as a European lab rat, an example of how national feelings can be suppressed to form an artificial state unconnected with national identity (in the dominant political orthodoxy in Europe, nationalism and patriotism are covers for fascism and war-mongering).
The country is a test case for how the euro-fanatics intend to create a European super-state out of disparate European nations. By any reasonable measure, Belgium should pull apart into two states; a huge number of its people and politicians want it to pull apart, but Brussels is the seat of European Union power, the cockpit of “ever closer union.” If more than 180 years of anti-national Belgian propaganda can’t keep the Flemings and Walloons welded into one state, what hope is there to create a country called Europe out of dozens of nations?
It is the question of nationalism that makes Sunday’s general election so complicated. The question is how well the biggest party, the Flemish nationalist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), will do.
An Open Europe blog post explains that the N-VA wants to reform the country into a confederation, though it favours splitting it up in the very long term.
N-VA became the biggest party in the last election, yet was not in government. One of the reasons it took 541 days to form a government was that the N-VA could not conclude an agreement with the French-speaking parties. The French-speaking politicians want more powers given to the Walloon region but do not want to see the break-up of Belgium because the richer, more productive Flemish north is a tax cash-cow for the high-unemployment French-speaking south.
When a government was finally formed in December 2011, it was a coalition led by a French-speaking socialist, Elio di Rupo. However, his government did not have the support of the majority of Flemish MPs.
What’s going to happen after this election?
Either a coalition much like the last one, but with a different prime minister, or a government with the leader of the N-VA, who, according to Open Europe, has said he would not make new demands for decentralised powers if centre-right policies are followed by the government.
Or Belgium could just go into more hundreds of days of no government.
Whichever, Belgium will stay teetering on the edge of break-up. In other words, it will stay normal.