An obscure little place squeezed between bigger powers, Belgium has always been… well, different. For example, it is the first working anarchist state. It has not had a government since June 2010, when the previous one was dissolved following parliamentary elections, which the ruling right-of-centre coalition lost and Flemish nationalists and Walloon socialists won. This would be like Ralph Nader having to form a government with Pat Buchanan and Michele Bachmann. Talks have predictably gotten nowhere.

With public debt inching past 100% of GDP, a lesser country would have collapsed by now. But bond-holders are, as yet, unconcerned. Belgium’s high-industrial economy generates a nice trade surplus by selling the world everything from sophisticated machine tools to aircraft wings (according to local media, Osama bin Laden was shot with Belgian-made weapons). The non-existence of a government has not prevented the country from tidying up public spending plans, sell fresh debt, raise some taxes, pacify striking teachers or send F-16fighter jetsto join the NATO campaign in Libya.

Last Friday, Belgium won a new weirdness award. As far as I can tell, it became the first country in the world to pass legislation that discriminates against its own citizens. The new family reunion law, supported by all parties bar the Greens, only allows resident European Union citizens to bring their families to Belgium. Belgian citizens are expressly forbidden from doing so.

Belgium is a shell. The lack of a national government matters little since so many decisions are taken at other levels, principally the linguistically defined regions. Ad-hoc coalitions form in the federal parliament to handle day-to-day business. ‘Zombie ministers’, caretakers from the long-dead government, act as the executive (In typical undead style, some can forget that they’re not part of the living anymore, something zombie finance minister Didier Reynders learned the hard way when his bid for Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s job at the IMF was heaped with ridicule).

But the wondrous strangeness hides an increasingly ugly underbelly. Belgium is one of the most racist countries in Europe. Populist parties elsewhere gain votes, but in Belgium’s north they win elections. The family reunion law has to be seen in that context.

EU treaties guarantee the freedom of movement of European citizens, and Europeans are mostly Christian and white. Most Belgians’ families, logically enough, already live in Belgium and are themselves Belgian. The law was thus expressly tailored for one small group of citizens: those of Moroccan and Turkish ethnic origin, whose brown-skinned and djellaba-wearing parents most Belgians don’t want to see in their cities. Like Israel before it, Belgium is discovering the seductions of two-class citizenships.

Brussels Central Railway Station photo courtesy of Joel Schalit.