Many outside observers have the impression that Belgium, still a federal constitutional monarchy at the moment, is falling apart. The fact that the country was without a government for one-and-a-half years did not help, of course. But now that there is a government – and it has kept itself intact for more than 100 days so far – the rumours of the country’s demise appear to be grossly exaggerated, to paraphrase an old joke.
Still Belgium, and Belgian society, has always been slightly different than others, seemingly living in a parallel universe where a different kind of logic reigns. Of course, one should never forget that this country is also the birthplace, incubator and, at present, still home to a phenomenon called surrealism. It should surprise no-one that Magritte is Belgian and that ‘ceci n’est pas un pays’. This was already the case in the 1950s when the country was still a unitary constitutional monarchy. But it is this surrealism that makes it understandable why the European institutions decided to settle ‘provisionally’ in Brussels when they did, and why it took the institutions 50 years, a couple of crises and treaties, until in 1997, the Commission could take the phrase ‘provisional address Rue de la Loi 200’ from its stationary, as the institutions were finally allowed to settle here for good following the passing of the Amsterdam Treaty.
And the institutions, and its inhabitants, the Eurocrats, have used these 50 years to familiarise themselves with this ‘surrealism’ and help lift it to levels never seen before. True, all bureaucracies are known for their idiosyncrasies, but the Europeans outclass any one else in this field. As we have seen in recent weeks they cancel meetings that were never announced in the first place, they issue statements to correct previous remarks but unfortunately of course have omissions in the statements that would therefore require another statement if only by then everyone was not already pre-occupied with something else and did not bother any more. I am referring here to poor High Representative Catherine Ashton, who issued a statement saying she was misquoted when she apparently put the murder of 3 Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi in Toulouse on a par with killings in Gaza. But she had not done so, at least not so literally, and thus issued a follow-up statement that said she was “grossly misinterpreted”. And then her people published a transcript of what she said, but sadly it was only partially complete, and missed out on a crucial reference she made to the violence against innocent people in Sderot in Israel. To start issuing a correction of a correction was even for them a bit far-fetched, but they let things run their course, whilst desperately trying to put her words in some kind perspective whenever they were asked for in the first place. In the words of that surreal American who should get honorary citizenship of Belgium, I am referring to Donald Rumsfeld of course, “shit happens”. This, of course, is also the man that invented the ‘known-unknowns’ and the ‘unknown-unknowns’.
Furthermore, as good Europeans, the French socialists would like to renegotiate a treaty that has not even been ratified by France, and that will not be ratified before the elections this Spring; the same treaty that will be put to a referendum in Ireland and that is undergoing all sorts of different ratification procedures in various member states. It will be interesting to see which texts will be ratified by whom, if somewhere in June, that is, if Hollande wins, re-negotiations start on a treaty that certain Member States will have by-then ratified.
Should there be a second referendum in Ireland once the re-negotiations are done? Perhaps not, as now the French socialist say that they not so much want to change the text of the present treaty, but would rather like to add something to it: a pact for economic growth. As this may well be void of any content challenging the sovereignty of member states, it may well be that the first referendum in Ireland – on the text without a ‘growth component’ – will suffice. Or not. One never knows in Europe. And that is why Europe's headquarters are in the natural habitat of surrealism: Belgium.