Today the majority of the media and most analyses of the Belgian situation speak of an “institutional crisis” or a “communitarian crisis”. While this way of conceiving the Belgian situation does reflect a part of the reality, it is to a great extent inadequate. Indeed, although apparently deadlocked in a crisis of “institutional reform”, Belgium is far from being a little island untouched by the austerity plans and the economic crisis that are hitting Europe. It is no exception.
Behind the institutional discussions about the future of Belgium lies the question of the future of Belgian social security and, broadly speaking, all the elements that make up its social system. While the “royal negotiator” (following in the wake of the “informateurs”, the “pré-formateurs”, “conciliators”, “mine clearers” … 1) is seeking a fresh compromise, the discussions are not only of regionalisation of family allowances but also about “big fish” like the whole policy of employment or healthcare.
Regionalising these issues would be a decisive step to dismantling the Belgian system of wealth distribution. It should not be forgotten that Bart de Wever (the leader of the co-governing Flemish Nationalist party, the N-VA) did not hesitate to declare during the negotiations that “the VOKA (the Flemish employers’ federation) is my boss”. Indeed the VOKA shares important programmatic points with the N-VA, such as limiting unemployment and putting a time-limit on benefits and the “time-credits” workers can get, the total abolition of pre-pensions, the generalised use of temporary work, the freezing of wages and their indexing (to take account of the rising cost of living). From this point of view, it seems evident that what is being established is not only an institutional vision of Belgium but also a vision of the solutions to be applied to the economic crisis.
Nationalism (which is very real) is disguising an ultra-liberal socio-economic agenda here. The institutional issue contains the seeds of future social conflicts, which will face the world of labour with austerity plans that are being drawn up in the very heart of the confederal perspective that is increasingly being put forth. At this level, rather than the all too often depicted opposition between Flemish and French speakers, what is at issue is the opposition between capital and labour, between the workers who were on strike last March 4 and the world of employers whose profits are again booming.
While it is unquestionable that nationalist trends dominate the Flemish political spectrum, it is less evident that this is a strictly Flemish problem. This view created a caricatured picture of an extreme-right, egocentric and separatist Flanders as against a “progressive” French-speaking world that wanted to save social security. This image, which makes it difficult to read the social content of the problem, is based on two myths:
“The majority of Flemish people are rightwing and nationalist.”
Since the last elections the naïve and reductionist idea has developed that the Flemish people voted primarily in accordance with communitarian issues through a clear-cut nationalist vote for the rightwing parties. Several investigations have considerably modified this perception, showing that the major priorities on both sides of the language barrier were social and economic (pensions, jobs, wages …). The political analyst Dave Sinardet, of Antwerp University, has several times repeated that “all the research on Flemish electoral behaviour show that the communitarian issue was the last of their priorities and that the separatists only represented 10% of the Flemish population”. “Many of the N-VA’s electors do not even know that the N-VA is separatist”. Thus the majority of the population in both Wallonia and Flanders are not attracted to the separatist scenario. What they want is a government that will take in hand the issues of employment, health, the environment and purchasing power. This desire is exactly what is increasingly being seen in a great number of joint initiatives for maintaining social solidarity.
“The French speakers are anti-nationalist and trying to preserve solidarity.”
The converse of the first myth is the widespread notion that only the francophones are trying to “resist” and defend social interests. However, the francophone political world is still too often engaged in a discourse that reproduces Flemish stereotypes. Thus, if the negotiating francophone parties are opposed to the splitting of social security and taxes, they often pose this in such a way as to defend the economy of Brussels and Wallonia rather than the common interests of the world of labour, in the North as well as in the South of the country. This is the logic of the “French-speaking Front” and the “defence of French-speakers”. Does this not strengthen the communitarian logic they seem to be attacking? This reinforcement of the logic occurs to the detriment of any real support for those trends in Flemish public opinion, which likewise defend the national social-security system on behalf of all citizens.
Thus, as Jan Goosens rightly stated “Just because there is no N-VA in the French Community does not mean that the communitarian logic is not gaining ground there. I have the impression that the francophone cultural world is concentrating on the N-VA but is not perturbed about possible drifts on its side. Yet this communitarian spirit is showing up everywhere – in Belgium, but also throughout Europe”.2 As for solutions to the crisis, far from opposing the Flemish politicians the entire political caste seems to agree on one point: the need for austerity. After all, Elio Di Rupo stated “We must tell the people the truth: austerity is necessary3”. On austerity measures as a solution to the crisis there is no communitarian disagreement.
The political and media treatment of the big January 23 “SHAME” demonstration, which brought together from 30,000 to 45,000 people, reflects a tendency to deny the social and progressive aspect of the movement being created. In fact, while officially “apolitical”, the SHAME demonstration was very diverse, composed in equal measure of movements, parties and trade unions opposed to the dismantling of social security. Unfortunately, this kind of activity is too often presented as a defence of the “nation” without any political dimension. Yet, in Flanders as much as in Wallonia and Brussels, several appeals and actions by the artistic, scientific and trade-union worlds have allowed another voice to be heard, a voice that declares its opposition to nationalism and its determination to defend the major social gains of the Belgian working-class movement.
The concept of Belgium also signifies the establishment of the social security system, “the country’s most beautiful cathedral” as the trade unionists used to say. A cathedral built by the Flemish people, the Walloons and people from Brussels as well as immigrants who came from many horizons – this is the Belgian social movement4. On January 21, all these voices came together during an evening event organised by the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels with the slogan “Niet in onze naam” (Not in our name). The youth were also in the front ranks through their “frites revolution” which brought together 7,000 young people from all over the country openly to defend the Federal Social Security System.
In this context, the mobilisation around the Inter-Professional Agreement5 (AIP) is of great importance – both symbolic and political. The new agreement proposed by the employers envisaged a complete wage freeze for 2011 and a maximum increase of 0.03% for 2012. In addition, it proposed a lowering of the status of office staff and the use of state funds to pay unemployment benefits! This agreement, rejected by the Socialist and liberal trade unions (FGTB and CGSLB) and strongly criticised by the Christian CSC, puts the question of the communal crisis in another light. On this point there is clearly no North/South division (all the political parties supported the carrying out of this agreement) but rather a worker/employer division. Accordingly, there was little discussion on the AIP issue; the parties as a whole accepted the agreement despite the vehement protests from the world of labour. March 4 saw the Belgian world of labour mobilised in a strike with good turnout throughout the country. In the North as much as in the South, workers went on strike, demonstrated and struggled in defence of their gains.
More generally, the coming season of struggles is already being organised against the attacks announced by the EU and the Sarkozy-Merkel tandem against pensions, indexation and wages. The first major objective was the March 24 and 25 European summits. On the 24th a united action took place prepared by the FGTB and the CSC together with the European Trade Union Confederation. For the world of labour, the answer to the Competitiveness Pact / Euro+ Pact is NO.
These actions let us see the importance of the link between the reform of the Belgian state and austerity plans at the European level. On the connection between these two issues depends the development of a major social struggle enabling the Belgian workers as a whole to mobilise against the bosses’ attacks, because it is only in unity that the Belgian workers’ movement’s victories have been achieved.
The European Union today is built on a neoliberal model and is carrying out a very harsh austerity policy. In France, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Great Britain, young people and workers have expressed their rejection of these policies in a national context – with an intensity not seen in a long time. All of the social gains they are trying to preserve were won on the national level. Thus their defence involves solidarity at the European level, which is the opposite of withdrawing into smaller “cultural entities” or “regionalisms”, movements that generally hide retrograde social programmes. In this way, Belgium has all the potential assets (due to its diversity of languages and cultures) to be an example of unity and solidarity, an example for future struggles at a European level.
In this spirit, one of the statements launched by a number of Belgian intellectuals ends with this appeal: “The time has come to build a social movement and to build the greatest number of bridges between Walloons, Brussels citizens and Flemish citizens who are opposed to this narrow nationalism. We do not want to remain silent in the face of this headlong flight towards separatism. We think it is time to develop other perspectives, ones that are capable of overcoming the communitarian division, and to work for that which the N-VA fears most – a broad movement against nationalism and for solidarity”.6