• The Belgian Conundrum

  • By Francine Mestrum | 09 Nov 10 | Posted under: Belgium
  • Federal elections took place in Belgium on June 13, 2010, three and a half months before these lines were written. There is as yet no government, and not one of the problems that gave rise to the elections has been solved. It is not an easy task to try and explain the situation to people from abroad.

    Let us, however, give it a try. Belgium is a federal state, as a result of various reforms of the past decades. The institutional make-up of Belgium is rather complicated. Belgium has three (cultural) communities that are language based: the Northern Dutch-speaking (Flemish) community, the Southern French-speaking (Walloon community) and a small German-speaking community. Next to these communities, there are three “regions”, based on territory: a Flemish region, a Walloon region (including the German speaking community) and a bilingual Brussels region. The Constitution also speaks of four linguistic regions: Flemish, French, German and a bilingual region Brussels Capital.

    Why did the federal government fall?

    The territories of these three communities, three regions and four linguistic regions do not coincide. Each community and each region has its own government and parliament, alongside the federal government and bi-cameral parliament. However, in Flanders, where the territory of the region and the community coincide, the governments and parliaments have merged. This gives Belgium a total of six governments and six parliaments. Regional elections do not coincide with federal elections.

    There had been federal elections in June 2007. They were won in the North by a coalition of Christian-Democrats and nationalists, in the South by the liberals. The Christian-Democratic leader had promised “five minutes of political courage” to solve the remaining “communitary” problems of the country (the splitting up of one electoral constituency around Brussels). Nevertheless, it took almost one year to constitute a government of Christian democrats, nationalists, French-speaking socialists and liberals. However, it did not succeed in splitting up of the constituency of Brussels-Halle Vilvoorde (BHV). After many failed negotiations, the liberals finally quit the government.

    The new elections did not make things easier. In Flanders, the vote was clearly won by the Nationalist Party, with 28 %. These votes come from their former Christian-Democratic partner (which fell to an historic low of 17.3 %) and from the extreme right nationalist party (Vlaams Belang), which fell back to 12.5 %. The Flemish social democrats reached their historic low of 14.7 %, the liberals got 13.6 % (a loss of more than 5 %), whereas the Greens, with 6.8 %, maintained their previous level.

    In the southern part of the country, the situation was even clearer: 37.1 % for the social-democrats, a 10 % loss for the liberals (22.5 %), 14.8 % for the Christian Democrats and 12.5 % for the Greens.

    The two political winners, Bart De Wever for the Flemish National Alliance (NVA) and Elio Di Rupo for the French-speaking social democrats, are ideological opposites. Nevertheless, there is no other constitutionally acceptable solution than an agreement between them, since another constitutional reform will require a two-thirds majority.

    The problems that need to be solved

    There are three important “knots” to be untied.

    First, the economic and social issues: Belgium has and always had a huge public deficit which rose again with the financial crisis. Far-reaching austerity was promised by all political parties, and the trade unions are ready for tough negotiations on the welfare state, which has remained relatively intact in the past years. However, these problems have not been discussed yet. They await a solution because of the communitary problems.

    The second and major problem before the elections was indeed the carving up of the electoral constituency of BHV (Brussels Halle Vilvoorde). This is a consequence of an electoral reform of some years ago, with the purpose of making the provinces coincide with the electoral districts. The central province of Brabant (with Brussels) was split into two: a French-speaking part and a Dutch-speaking part. However, the old constituency of Brussels Halle Vilvoorde remained, a situation considered to be inequitable by the Constitutional Court. The problem is that some formally Flemish municipalities around Brussels have “facilities” for its French speaking inhabitants. They can vote for French-speaking candidates on lists in Brussels. If the constituency is split, this right would disappear, and that is why the French-speaking parties justifiably want compensation. The point is that many of these municipalities have a French speaking majority of up to 80%. The major problem is the opposition between the principle of “territory” (the municipalities are indeed formally in Flanders) and the principle of personal/individual issues (the sociological reality of the French-speaking population), the principles on which the regions and communities are based. Many solutions have been proposed, but none has been accepted by both parts.

    The third and other very important problem came up during the negotiations for this new government. If both parts of the country now agree on the need for another reform of the state, the question remains what competences will be transferred to the regions. From the point of view of the south of the country, the two main elements of federal solidarity – taxes and social security – cannot be split up. However, this is precisely what the Flemish nationalists want. They now also asked for a reform of the legislation on the funding of the different regions: it is the federal government which is funding the different regions, according to a complicated formula. Flemish nationalists think the financial transfers from north to south have to be stopped. They also refuse to help the clearly underfunded Brussels region without its assuming more “responsibility”.

    What about Brussels?

    Brussels, the cosmopolitan capital of Belgium, with the European Union and NATO, with its many multinational corporations and with its very important immigrant population, is the third richest region of Europe, but it has one third of its population living below the poverty line, with massive youth unemployment. Every day, around 350,000 people come to Brussels to work, but they leave again in the evening for their villages in Flanders and Wallonia. Formally, Brussels is bilingual; in reality it is a multilingual city, with a small minority of Flemish inhabitants (less than 10%), and with almost half of all households being multilingual. Neither Flanders nor Wallonia love Brussels. The Flemish dream of homogeneous linguistic communities, and with Brussels – the capital on its territory – this is totally impossible. It is also impossible to ask the Brussels population to choose one of two communities: there are too many “mixed” and multilingual households. In brief, it is Brussels that makes the splitting up of the Kingdom impossible, unless there is an agreement to make Brussels a kind of European D.C. But this is not on the agenda (yet), although, according to a recent poll, it is what the majority of Brussels’ population would like.

    What about nationalism?

    Finally, who are these Flemish nationalists? The Flemish nationalist movement is more than one century old but gained momentum after the First World War, in which young rural Flemish boys did not understand the orders of their French-speaking officers (“Et pour les Flamands la même chose”). In its inception, the Flemish movement was a social and peace movement. This changed in the run-up to the Second World War, when the Germans promised the Flemish autonomy and later when many young Catholics listened to the church leaders’ urgings to go and fight the communists on the Eastern Front.

    Flanders had always been the poorer and more rural part of the country. Wallonia had its coalmines and its steel factories. It was rich and industrialised. Flanders only had its textile industry. This situation started to change after the Second World War when Flanders attracted major investments and slowly started to industrialise, while the industries of the South declined. The old Belgian capitalism had to make room for an emerging Flemish capitalism. The financial crisis of two years ago killed one of the last bastions of Belgian capitalism: Fortis or the former Société Générale.

    The NVA is a part of the old Flemish nationalist party Volksunie. Vlaams Blok is the result of a first group that left the party and became the successful extreme-right and anti-immigrant party. Some years ago, the Volksunie finally was dissolved, some of its members going to the social democrats, others creating a new social-liberal party (that has meanwhile also been dissolved), some going to the Greens, while another minor part created the NVA. It is this party that now has a very intelligent and charismatic leader, Bart De Wever, with very conservative rightwing roots. It has an explicit separatist agenda, while only about 10% of the Flemish population, according to a recent opinion poll, wants to see the end of Belgium.

    What this nationalist party stands for is a mix of neoliberalism and conservatism. Since the party is very young it has no staff to fall back on, but it has excellent relations with Flemish employers. “Voka (the Flemish employer’s organisation) is my boss”, as De Wever said. It strongly focuses on cultural identity, as the all-encompassing element of social cohesion, a “popular democracy” for their own community, which, according to some, is a kind of modern apartheid.

    The discourse they developed is difficult to contest: those who do not agree are the “bad Flemish”, they do not belong to “our community”. Those who want to live in “our” community have to speak “our” language and adopt “our values”. They created the image of a hard-working Flanders against a lazy and irresponsible Wallonia, a “rightwing Flanders” against a “leftwing Wallonia”, forgetting the diversity of each region (though it is true that three explicitly rightwing parties in Flanders got 45 % of the votes).

    On the social and economic front, one wonders if voters know what is in store for them: dismantling the welfare state, reducing unemployment allowances, lower wages and taxes, pension reform, etc.

    It is difficult to see how a reasonable solution for all these problems can be found. But there is hardly any other solution than the current coalition of negotiating parties: Christian Democrats, Social-Democrats and Greens from the north and the south, with a dominant role for the Flemish nationalists.

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