Thursday, September 20, 2007

The $14 Million Country

September 20, 2007 - WSJ

What stands between Belgium and nothingness? The list, alas, isn't long. A royal family and the capital Brussels, the beloved but of late struggling Red Devils national soccer team and a talent for brewing robust beers and consuming black pots of mussels. And, lest the reader fears a dyed-in-the-wool Belgian might take undue offense, a dark and naughty sense of humor.

Now the jokes may soon be history, along with Belgium -- a place that native-born writer Luc Sante called "nowhere." Separated by language and brought together relatively recently by West European standards -- in 1831 -- by the Great Powers of Britain and France, the Walloons and Flemish bicker as never before. Some 100 days after the general elections, the country's two biggest communities still can't agree to form a new government. This impasse is prompting a bigger question: Why bother at all? Half the Flemish speakers, according to a poll out this week, want Belgium put to sleep.

As far as we can tell, patriots aren't rushing to the rescue. And protest, such as it is, has taken on a distinctly Belgian character. This week, Gerrit Six, a teacher, put up an ad on eBay: "For sale: Belgium, a kingdom in three parts . . . free premium: the king and his court (costs not included)." Interviewed by Associated Press Television News, Mr. Six said he wanted to "attract attention" and "make clear that Belgium was valuable, it's a masterpiece and we have to keep it."

The joke, perhaps inevitably, ended up on Belgium. The country attracted a top bid of €10 million, just under $14 million. Surely, even with its $300 billion plus in national debt, Belgium might fetch a little more on the open market. The Norwegian royal palace in Oslo was priced at $99 million in another recent hoax auction on eBay. We'll never know, as eBay pulled the Belgium item, saying the site can't host the sale of anything virtual or unrealistic. Which just about sums the place up.

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