Belgium's identity crisis


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Belgium's identity crisis

  1. 1. 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  
  2. 2. 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  
  3. 3. 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  
  4. 4. 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  
  5. 5. 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