The blame game after the Brussels attacks gathers pace, but no one accepts responsibility.

Barely a week has elapsed since Brussels was hit by terrorist attacks, but already Belgian politics has descended into what Belgian politicians do supremely well: finger-pointing, blame-shifting and name-calling.

Those, including myself, who dared to hope that the enormity of last Tuesday’s events might oblige Belgian politicians to unite for the purpose of much-needed reform, look like being disappointed.

On Sunday afternoon, a bunch of racist thugs added an unseemly note of farce to Belgium’s international ignominy: they marched on Place de la Bourse in Brussels and attempted to trash the memorials and to disrupt the vigil staged there since Tuesday’s attacks. Police eventually saw them off with water-cannon, but it didn’t take long for Yvan Mayeur, the francophone socialist mayor of Brussels (the central city borough, not the whole of the Brussels region), to blame the breakdown in public order on Flemish politicians. 

He pointed an accusing finger at Hans Bonte, a Flemish socialist, the mayor of Vilvoorde, from where the thugs set off by train for neighboring Brussels, and Jan Jambon, Belgium’s interior minister, who is from the Flemish nationalist party, N-VA.

In an interview with a francophone television channel, Mayeur said he no longer had confidence in Jambon. He said that Flanders was contaminating Brussels with its extremists, who were followers of the N-VA and Bart De Wever (the N-VA’s party leader and the mayor of Antwerp). In response, Jambon’s spokesman said that what happened in Place de la Bourse fell under the authority of the mayor — i.e., Mayeur.

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For those accustomed to the ways of Belgian politics, this is deeply depressing and horribly familiar. The buck-passing and blame-shifting in the wake of Tuesday’s attacks is beginning to mount up, albeit the Mayeur outburst — a sideshow compared to the main agenda of counter-terrorism — was one of the least restrained and silliest.

Jambon himself stands accused of trying to put the blame for failing to pick up one of the airport suicide bombers on a police liaison officer stationed in Istanbul. The government in Turkey claims that it told Belgian representatives in Istanbul that Brahim el-Bakraoui was on his way by plane from Turkey to Amsterdam — though the quality of that information is disputed.

Jambon also appeared to blame the Brussels regional government for failing to stop the metro after the airport bomb. The suggestion is that the death-toll inflicted by the bomb at Maalbeek station might have been prevented or at least reduced if the metro had been closed down and evacuated when it became clear that terrorists had struck at the airport.

Other “What if?” questions have emerged.

The police chief in Mechelen has apologized for failing to pass on information that Salah Abdeslam’s cousin had been radicalized. It was this cousin who gave Abdeslam shelter in the days before his capture. The federal prosecutor questioned Abdeslam only briefly between his capture on Friday and the bomb attacks on Tuesday. The police seem to have moved in quickly on the apartment in Schaerbeek immediately after the explosions. So was that apartment-turned-bomb-factory already on their watch-list? To put it kindly, these incidents add to an overall impression that information was available, but not passed on efficiently.

To the outside world, given how many mistakes have already emerged, and the numbers of people who have died in Paris and now in Brussels, it seems unbelievable that no front-rank Belgian politician has had to resign from government. It emerged in the 48 hours after Tuesday’s attacks that Jambon, the interior minister, and Koen Geens, the justice minister, had offered their resignations to the prime minister, Charles Michel, but he had instructed them to stay in office, saying that this was not the time for resignations. Although Jambon and Geens have since been accused of offering their resignations as a political stunt — knowing that they would be refused — there has been no general clamor for political heads to roll.

To those accustomed to other political traditions, where ministerial sackings and resignations are a recurring feature of political life, that the Belgian government should – up to now at least – survive intact, seems extraordinary.

For those more accustomed to Belgian ways, it is less surprising, even understandable. Recall that no minister resigned because of the mistakes made by the forces of law and order in the investigation of Marc Dutroux, who abducted, raped and killed young girls in the 1990s, one of the most traumatic periods for the Belgian establishment during the last 30 years. It was only when Dutroux escaped from a courthouse in 1998, two years after his arrest, that ministers resigned — the then interior minister and justice minister.

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In the British government, ministerial resignations are relatively common because the prime minister has such centralized power: it has become a presidential system in all but name. David Blunkett resigned twice, once as interior minister, once as work and pensions minister. Both times, his resignation was demanded by Prime Minister Tony Blair because of scandals that damaged the government. The first was when his love-life spilled over into the newspapers — and allegations surfaced that he had speeded up a visa application for his ex-lover’s nanny. On the second charge — undeclared share dealings — he was later cleared of wrongdoing, but too late to reverse his sacking.

Peter Mandelson became Britain’s European commissioner for trade largely because he had twice been obliged by Blair to resign from government because of controversies about his behavior — a misleading declaration in a mortgage application and accusations (denied) over interference in a passport application. An inquiry later cleared him of impropriety.

Belgian politics is different from British politics in more than just its reluctance to make sex scandals a reason for resignation. The resignation-as-thinly-disguised-sacking is much less common, largely because the prime minister exerts much less power over his ministers, who are mostly of different parties.

In the current instance, while Michel is a francophone liberal, from the Reformist Movement party, his justice minister Geens is a Flemish Christian Democrat (CD&V) and his interior minister Jambon is from the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). The fourth party in the coalition is Open VLD, the Flemish liberals. For all that Michel is prime minister, N-VA is the biggest party in the federal parliament. And to dislodge a minister is to challenge a particular party’s standing in the government. Michel cannot survive without N-VA’s continued support, and N-VA leader De Wever will not allow Jambon to be made the scapegoat for all the mistakes committed by various authorities.

The geometry of Belgian coalition governments is complicated, with ministries shared out according both to their number and importance. Changing the balance in the federal government risks knock-on effects in the composition of regional governments below. All of which means that an individual minister’s security depends a great deal on whether he or she has the confidence of his or her own party’s leadership and on the strength of that party within a coalition.

In 2003, Isabelle Durant, leader of the francophone Green party, Ecolo, resigned from Guy Verhofstadt’s first government, which was a symmetrical coalition of liberals, socialists and greens from each side of the linguistic divide. Durant and her party colleague Olivier Deleuze stepped down after a clash with Verhofstadt over the issue of night flights from Brussels airport. The socialists sided with Verhofstadt and the Greens found themselves isolated and impotent.

But this kind of resignation — a protest over policy — is common to all political cultures: it is the moment when the minister has had enough, and because of a personality clash with the prime minister, or a disagreement over policy (and frequently the former masquerading as the latter), walks out in a huff slamming the door behind. A recent instance in Britain was the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary. Margaret Thatcher made a habit of inducing such resignations: most famously those of Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe — the latter’s door-slamming ultimately brought her down. The departure of Oskar Lafontaine from the first government of Gerhard Schröder would fit this pattern.

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What critics of the current Belgian government crave is a sacrificial resignation — the honorable departure of a minister prepared to take the blame for the administration’s errors. The most clear-cut example from post-war British history would be that of Peter Carrington, who resigned as foreign minister in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. He was taking responsibility for the foreign ministry’s failures of policy and planning. (John Nott, the defense minister, also offered his resignation, but Thatcher kept him in post.) Carrington’s ministerial career in British politics was over, though he later became secretary-general of NATO.

Belgian politics has a weaker expectation that ministers should take responsibility for the mistakes of their civil servants. In part that is because the senior ranks of the civil service are more strongly politicized: the jobs are divided according to party and linguistic affiliations, which blurs the lines of accountability. Why would a minister resign for mistakes made by his or her political opponents?

Note that Claude Fontaine, director-general of the federal judicial police, has had a prominent role in the investigations into alleged terrorists since the November 13 attacks in Paris, but has not long been in that post. His predecessor Glenn Audenaert served two terms, but is now charged with corruption over real estate contracts related to the new office accommodation for his service. A culture of honorable ministerial resignations presupposes a culture of honest administration, and that is belied by Belgium’s history of clientelism.

Similarly, the fragmentation of Belgian government militates against the honorable resignation. Where there is so much uncertainty about who has responsibility — whether local, regional or federal government — and so many mistakes are about passing information between those layers, it barely makes sense for a federal minister to take the blame for errors committed at some other level of government. Where power is passed down (however fuzzily), so too will be the expectation to resign. Why should the interior minister resign, runs this argument, while the mayor of Molenbeek remains in office?

Outsiders should be cautious in assuming that honorable resignations would make the Belgian government stronger. That depends on the replacement talent available. N-VA is a young party that has only recently begun to taste power in the regional and federal governments. A prime minister who sacrifices his leading ministers would like to be confident that the replacements will be at least half as good. In the case of Geens and Jambon, there is no such guarantee. And both men sit atop ministries that are awash with problems.

Michel may well calculate that at this moment it is better to keep Geens and Jambon on board, however tainted, because they have had nearly 18 months in power to get to know their ministries and their police and judicial interlocutors. This moment of viperous recrimination is hardly the ideal time to blood a neophyte minister.

Michel’s good fortune is that his main opposition are the socialists, whose record of municipal government in Brussels, in Charleroi and formerly in Antwerp can be blamed for various failures to get to grips with the jihadi threat. The various parties in the coalition have their differences, but it is hard to see how a government that took five months to put together after the May 2014 elections can be partially disassembled. The current government will, it seems, stand or fall together and no single party will want to take the blame for bringing the government down at a moment of national crisis.

Michel I is wobbling, but it is holding on, in the absence of an alternative.

Tim King writes POLITICO‘s Brussels Sketch.