Arts, Culture & Media

Worried about a US government shutdown? Take a cue from Belgium

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Belgians, Flemish and Walloon alike, protest against their country's lack of a federal government in 2011.

Credit:

Clark Boyd

The US may be #1 in some areas, but it's topped in at least one by tiny Belgium. Belgium may hold the record, at least for developed countries, for days without a government - at 589 days. And, that seems to work pretty well... for Belgians.

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"No government, great country."

I remember that hand-painted sign waving above a crowd of Belgians marching through the streets of Brussels on a freezing winter afternoon a couple of years ago. That was around day 229 without a government.

Politicians from the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south were still wrangling, on and off, trying to form a government. But to be honest, the political negotiations were half-hearted

And the protests were too. After 10 minutes of chanting, most of the protestors headed off to the truck selling frites -- the famous Belgian fries -- or off to the bar for a beer.

Fast forward a bit, and I was in the city of Ghent for another protest. Well, celebration really. Belgium had just broken the world record for time taken to form a new democratic government after an election. Yea!

A group of gin-steeled students tried to show that all Belgians, underneath, were the same. They did this by stripping down to their underwear. And then they drank some more gin, because it was, after all, February.

And still the Belgian political wrangling continued. 

People in the US would ask me, "But how the hell does it all keep functioning without a government?"

Well, I'd say, you have to understand the peculiar Belgian political system. The federal government itself is fairly weak. But the regions of Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia have their own parliaments. As does Brussels, which is the only official multi-lingual part of the country.

So, local things such as trash pick-up, mail delivery, even pension payments, all that continued without a hitch for the most part.

A local columnist suggested to me at the time: why not just call Belgium the world's most successful failed state? Belgium is, after all, the home of surrealism.

Again, I remember the sign. "No government, great country."

Belgium did eventually form a government after 589 days. And it's still, relatively speaking, working.

I only say all this to try -- merely try -- to allay fears you might have about a potential US government shutdown.

You could take take the Belgian tack, and embrace the surreality of it all.

Revel in the fact that, thanks to Ted Cruz, Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" is now part of the Congressional record.

Go on. Don't be stubborn.

You know how the book goes: "Could you, would you, with a goat? I could not would not with a goat."

That's the Belgian spirit.

Grab some fries and a beer. 

Grow a mustache and wear a bowler, like Hecule Poirot. Smoke a pipe (that's not a pipe), a la Magritte.

Watch The Smurfs, or read a Tin Tin comic.

Above all, take your legally mandated two-hour lunch break, and stop worrying about government shutdowns.

"You do not like them, so you say. Try them, try them and you may, I say," in the words of the great Seuss.

Unless, of course, you're an American trying to get a passport. Or see the pandas at the Washington Zoo. Or are counting on toxic waste cleanup. Or are trying to visit the Lincoln Memorial. Or if you want the Centers for Disease Control to continue to monitor outbreaks.

Then, maybe, worry a bit.