Belgium Close To Forming Government


French-speaking Socialist Elio Di Rupo could be Belgium's next prime minister. (Photo: Michiel Hendryckx/Wiki Commons)

Belgium's 18-month political impasse may be nearing an end. Parties from the Dutch-speaking North and the French-speaking South have finally agreed, in principle, to form a coalition government.

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Still, economically speaking, Belgium remains divided between north and south.

There are bridges, though.

Take the food services company, Ter Beke. It doesn't care if you're from the Flemish North or the Walloon region in the South. If you're Belgian, Ter Beke wants to be your go-to company when it's time for dinner.

Ter Beke started as a family-run butcher shop in Flanders in the late 1940s. Over the years, it expanded and diversified into all sorts of processed meats and frozen foods. It does more than half a billion dollars worth of business a year, and it employs more than 1,500 people – in all regions of Belgium.

Luc De Bruyckere, chairman of Ter Beke, said the company lives in both worlds of Belgium.

"We are based in the Flemish region. We are a Flemish company, but we have three plants in Wallonia, employing 700 people in that part of Belgium," De Bruyckere said.

Historically, Wallonia's coal and steel industry made it the wealthier part of the country. But after World War II, the Flemish economy in the north took off, in part because of its seaside location and ports, like Antwerp.

Meanwhile, Wallonia's heavy industry declined.

For years now, billions in tax money have flowed south from what is now the wealthier part, Flanders, to Wallonia.

It's created what some see as a microcosm of Europe's larger economic crisis – a split between North and South.

Johan Van Overtveldt, author of the book "The End of the Euro," said the dividing line runs right through Belgium.

"The Flemish economy belongs in the hard currency Germany, Dutch-like economic system and thinking. The southern part of Belgium is more like Italy."

He said the divide has been at the heart of the more than 500 days of political wrangling to form a Belgian government. And just like the Germans are demanding that the Greeks be held accountable for the bailout money they've been given, "The Flemish people are saying loud and clear, we still want to pay for the poor Walloon area, but we want to know how much and for how long," Van Overtveldt said. "That's where the parallel between what's going on in Europe and what's happening in Belgium really goes very far."

Still, Wallonia is trying to turn its economy around. Charleroi Airport, 60 miles south of Brussels, is growing by leaps and bounds. In Liege, a science park for high-tech start-ups is doing well. And Google has built a huge new data center in Mons.

Marcel Claes, CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Brussels, said it all points to a Wallonia renaissance.

"Of course, it's still burdened a little bit with this strong industrial background of steel and coal industries," Claes said. "But clearly Wallonia has made major efforts in the last ten years or so to position itself positively, and it's attracted a lot of investment."

Belgium, by the way, is home to some 2,000 different U.S. companies, employing around 140,000 people.

Marcel Claes said that finally having a federal government in Belgium will be important to the country's image abroad.

Luc De Bruyckere of Ter Beke agrees, but warned that the real crisis is the bigger economic crisis in Europe.

"There is only one way to get out of the crisis, and that is working together. That means having more Europe, not only a monetary area, but also a budget area that is more integrated, and more unified."

De Bruckyere said he'll be watching next week's European summit in Brussels very closely. His company has no plan B should the Euro fall apart. He said losing the Euro would be "unbearable, a disaster."

It's a sentiment that companies in both Flanders and Wallonia can agree on.