Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Prime Minister, Haiku Poet

Prime Minister, Poet

Belgium's new premier, Herman Van Rompuy is known as both a budget hardliner and an intellectual who writes haiku on a personal blog. Recent entries, translated from Dutch:

When a friend is dead
You above all miss his voice
But you still hear him

As the last leaf falls
Naked branches show themselves
Winter shows itself
Of course, he has a blog:

Herman Van Rompuy, an intellectual with a penchant for writing haiku, was sworn in on Tuesday as Belgium's prime minister, triggering hopes that he could heal some of this country's bitter linguistic divisions.

Belgium is a curious case, a country I know almost nothing about: I know it is roughly half Walloon and half Flemish, that French and Dutch are the nation's two languages.

The 61-year-old Mr. Van Rompuy takes over a fragile government that has been hammered by a recent bank-bailout scandal and an economy sliding into recession.

Mr. Van Rompuy is from Belgium's Dutch-speaking majority, whose demands for greater autonomy have caused political turmoil here in recent years. But his selection was welcomed by French-speaking media and opinion makers.

In an editorial titled "Yes, He Can," La Libre Belgique, the French-language daily, called Mr. Van Rompuy a leader of "reason and heart," who understands the dangers of dismantling the state.

Note the slogan-headline: more of Obama's influence. Good to see glimmers of reconciliation and cooperation.

Mr. Van Rompuy's immediate priorities, his spokesman said, will be nailing down the details of a €2 billion ($2.8 billion) stimulus plan passed this month by the Belgian parliament and sealing the government's October deal to sell the Belgian banking and insurance arms of Fortis NV, to BNP Paribas SA of France for €14.5 billion.

Belgium shows up as # 30 on the CIA World Fact Book, below Egypt and above Malaysia, with a GDP of $ 376,500,000,000. Two point eight billion in an economy of 376 billion is less than 1%, not much by today's standards.

The longer-term issue on Mr. Van Rompuy's plate, however, is healing the rift between Dutch speakers in Flanders in the north and French speakers in Wallonia in the south. Flanders is wealthier and wants a confederal-state system like Switzerland's, giving each region more control over its tax revenues.

North Italy and South Italy share that sort of split.

Mr. Van Rompuy doesn't have an easy solution to Belgium's linguistic divide, said his spokesman, Dirk De Backer. Unlike Mr. Leterme, Mr. Van Rompuy has a reputation as a conciliator. "Talking, talking to each other, trying to understand each other" will yield a compromise, said Mr. De Backer.

One haiku called "Hair," reads, when translated from the Dutch: "Hair blows in the wind/After years there is still wind/Sadly no more hair."

I know that feeling.

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