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Biographies Steven Lauwers is a Belgian (Flemish) national currently pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the Hertie School of Governance. After having received his degrees in Corporate Communications and International Communication from Plantijn Universtiy College in Antwerp, he worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva for nearly 3 years, representing WHO as a spokesperson during the H1N1 Influenza outbreak. Godefroy Grosjean is a Belgian (Walloon) national studying public policy at the Hertie School of Governance. He is currently doing a professional year with the German International Cooperation (GIZ) in China. Godefroy holds a M.Sc. in Economics from Maastricht University. He focuses on environmental policy with a particular interest for sustainable urban development. BELGIUM’S IDENTITY CRISIS On the 15th of February 2011, after 250 days without a government, Belgium snatched the world record for the longest period without a government from Iraq. A debatable trophy, but nonetheless the country seemed finally to have found something they can all celebrate together: in Antwerp DJs were on hand, Liege staged a flash-‐mob, Louvain handed out free chips and Ghent featured 250 protesters who dressed down to the bare essentials’. How did we get there and, more importantly, where do we go from here? Looking back in history, Belgium could be seen as an “accidental” nation. In 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna gave the “Southern Netherlands” (previously and successively under Spanish, Austrian and French rule) to the Kingdom of Netherlands. That region was, contrary to the Northern provinces, homogeneously Roman Catholic. During the Dutch rule, the Southern provinces were underrepresented politically and exploited financially, compared to the Northern Provinces (today’s Netherlands). This situation created tensions and eventually led to the Belgian revolution. The big powers in Europe, afraid of potential instability in the region, recognized the new country rather quickly. At a period of nation building in Europe, Belgium declared French as its only official language. The Belgian elites were willing to dissociate themselves from the previous Dutch rule: the ruling class turned to French (all over Belgium, including Flanders), while the masses spoke Flemish in the North and Walloon in the South. The arrogance of the French-‐speaking 1
Belgian elite during the industrialization and the poor living conditions of the working class caused a lot of resentment. During the 20th century, French was slowly replaced by Dutch in Flanders, while in Wallonia French became the main language – a natural development as Walloon was a Latin dialect much closer to French. During that process, a lot of the frustration existing in Flanders against the previously French-‐speaking bourgeoisie shifted towards the French-‐speaking part of Belgium. In the late 1960s the economic lead was transferred from the South to the North.. Wallonia, long among the most prosperous and technologically advanced regions of Europe due to its heavy industries (coal and steel-‐based), entered a period of decline, similar to other regions with comparable economic structures. Flanders benefited at the same time from a rapid development of its trade-‐oriented SMEs and light industries, supported by the fast growth of the Antwerp harbour. Due to the lack of economic vision of Wallonia’s politicians, the southern part of Belgium was not able to recover completely – despite significant social security transfers from the North to the South – and Flemish people became increasingly reluctant to subsidise and support the economically depressed Walloons. A major turning point in the political history of Belgium was the constitutional reform of 1970. The country was divided into language communities, not only increasing the division of the country on the basis of language, but also restructuring its politics: Belgium’s conservative Catholic party split into Francophone and Flemish halves, followed by the liberals and the socialists. Belgian politics became tribal, with each party championing its own linguistic agenda. Belgium now consists of federated entities – language based “communities” – and the three regions, Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. Competences are shared between these three levels of government while matters like social security, justice and foreign affairs remain a federal responsibility. The complicated structure of the Belgian state, and a history of unsuccessful requests from Flanders for state reform, has led to growing political tensions over the last years in the country. At the most recent election, about 8 months ago, many Flemish voters sought refuge in the one party that had been criticising the political mess all along: the New Flemish Alliance (NVA). This nationalist party, which only held a few seats in the Senate and the Chamber of 2
Representatives before 2010, won the elections in Flanders with nearly 30% of the votes. In Wallonia, almost 40% of the voters put their hopes in the Socialist Party (PS). Both party presidents embody what the different linguistic communities feel the other one stands for: Bart De Wever (NVA) sees separatism as the solution to the current chaos and represents a Flemish part that is clearly in search of its identity, whereas Elio Di Rupo (PS) represents the kind of socialism the Flemish voters dislike, the long-‐term social security and support, which they perceive as the opposite of change and progress. Belgium’s unwieldy political system makes coalition governments inevitable and with Flemish politicians squabbling with Walloons, and just as fiercely among themselves, political paralysis ensued. In the ensuing coalition negotiations, the parties have chosen to get a federal reform agreed first before building a government. This complex bargaining process between Belgium’s seven largest parties is still ongoing – increasingly paralysing the country. Putting history aside for a bit, what hinders Belgium to find a sustainable solution and what are our recommendations? Parties like the NVA have often highlighted the long-‐lasting social transfer from Flanders to Wallonia as a reason for the independence of the Northern region. We should, indeed, fine-‐tune our welfare system. But, while infinite transfers are not a solution, solidarity is part of the European model we have to defend. Confidence in cultural exchange and mutual enrichment, as well as economic innovation, is key for long-‐term growth. The nationalism put forward by the NVA is at the antipode of such approach. Language issues have played another major role in the Belgian disunion. The Flemish were relatively more successful than the French-‐speaking at mastering both main languages of the country. However, the young Belgian generations are evolving with different horizons than four decades ago. They want to discover Europe and the rest of the world, which may be observed in the popularity of the Erasmus exchange program, and are eager to learn English, Chinese, Spanish or even German to communicate with the rest of the world. But becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, our generation should realise this language “fundamentalism” is outdated in today’s society. After all, what is more essential, the communication itself or the means used to exchange? 3
The EU is pressuring Belgians to calm down and act sensibly, but tribal linguistic and cultural passions often pre-‐empt rational behaviour. Belgium is facing its worst troubles just as the EU confronts the gravest challenge to the Euro. Belgium should realise that, as one of the founding members of the EU and host to its political centre, it must remain a small-‐scale example for European integration. European unification is based on looking beyond the nation-‐state; Belgium cannot dissect itself without setting a worrisome precedent: not only Spain and Italy would fret about the precedent of rich regions pulling away from poorer ones; Scottish nationalists speak of independence within Europe and many ex-‐communist countries have significant national minorities: think of Hungarians in Slovakia. Splitting Belgium would break the mystique of European integration. So far the Belgian citizens have demonstrated a certain lassitude towards the current events. But now, 250 days after the elections, Belgium is probably one of the only countries in the world that is organising protests in favour of a government, rather than against it. While the global political framework is evolving dramatically, Belgium wastes time debating only minor issues. Public debt is now at around 100% of GDP and the spread of Belgian 10-‐year bonds over the German benchmark is three times as high as at the beginning of 2010. Not finding a solution will result in a rising debt ratio and complete chaos. It is obvious we cannot stay where we are, with so much political capital invested, but where exactly do we go from here? One of the solutions being discussed by Belgium’s political parties – and the solution favoured by the authors – consists of a partial transfer of competences and tax revenues from the federal state to the regions. The seven parties have not been able agree on the amount of transfers so far, but a minimal amount of transfers seems to be the best solution. Under the current financing law, the “special financing act” of 1989, the communities depend entirely on funding from the federal government. By transferring some competences and a part of the personal and indirect tax revenues to the regions, Belgium would grant the regions more autonomy and give them some of the competences they have been asking for. Brussels should then be compensated for the taxes lost to commuters that work but don’t live in Brussels. Transfers are essential to give the regions better tools to fight unemployment, 4
embrace innovation and create incentives for good governance, while also relieving the federal state from some of its burden. While transfers are necessary, the principle of federal solidarity should remain, and therefore competences such as justice, social security and public debt need to be kept at the federal level. This compromise would divide powers, without dividing the country. While this solution might have downsides and needs to be discussed in more details, it may – rather than break up the country – strengthen it, providing much-‐needed economic and political stability. 5