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Belgium: the non-government country?

Belgium: the non-government country?

woensdag 19 januari 2011 15:26
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Steunpuntmedewerker David Criekemans heeft voor de Spaanse site heel helder en duidelijk beschreven hoe ingewikkeld België in elkaar zit, en hoe het komt dat het zo moeilijk te besturen is.

De integrale tekst, met illustraties, is binnenkort te vinden op de Engelse versie van de site..

Hieronder alvast de tekst zonder illustraties.

Belgium: the non-government country?

In January 2011, Belgium broke a record. It became the country in Western Europe that needed the most days ever in order to form a new federal government. Since the federal elections of June 2010,
seven political parties are trying to form a new government and are attempting to reorganize the Belgian federation via a process called ‘state reform’. In Flanders, the nationalist party N-VA of Bart
De Wever won the elections, which is a centre right party. But in Wallonia, the socialist party PS of Elio Di Rupo won the elections. Both “big guys” today still try to reconcile ‘water’ and ‘fire’, but until now this has only produced a lot of steam and a political impasse, instead of a political deal. The clock is already counting more than 215 days, and today it seems that the politicians are even much further away from a political deal than ever. What is happening? Is Belgium a non-government country? Is the Belgian federation about to break up?

Belgium at a glance: institutions
The Belgian federation has a complex structure. At the national level, Belgium has a federal government. At the regional level, there exist so-called ‘Communities’ and ‘Regions’. This is a result of
history. From the 1960s onwards, the Flemish economy in the northern part of the country developed quite rapidly. At the same time the economy in Wallonia (southern part of the country), mainly based
on a so-called ‘heavy industry’, experienced a severe crisis. This element formed the first impetus for Wallonia to aspire to get political control over the economical policy-instruments, so as to be able to
shape its own future with tailor-made policy-tools. Flanders initially developed another reasoning; it wanted in first instance to protect its own language and culture (Dutch). Thus, the Flemish political
elite initially aspired to get political control over the culture-based policy-instruments in the country.
These dual aspirations led to the development of the so-called Belgian Regions and Communities, which overlap territorially.

The Belgian Communities ‘manage’ the so-called ‘person-bounded competences’ such as language policy, cultural policy, education, welfare, preventive health care, etc. The Belgian Regions ‘manage’
the so-called ‘territorially-bounded competences’ such as economy & employment (but some parts are still federal), infrastructure, environmental planning, renewable energy, etc. The Belgian federal level is still competent in areas such as the army, justice and police, social security, the national energy portfolio, justice and home affairs, health care (except preventive health care), development
cooperation (although the Regions and Communities also develop their own development cooperation on their own material competences), the national debt, etc.
There does exist however an important difference in the northern and the southern part of the country.
The competences of the Flemish Community and Flemish Region have in practice been merged. They are being managed by one Flemish Government and monitored by one Flemish Parliament. In the southern part of the country, there are still two different governments; the Walloon Regional Government and the French-speaking Community Government. As a result of this, the Belgian federal model has often been labelled an “a-symmetric model”.
Federal governments in Belgium comprise a parity linguistic basis. This means that the number of Dutch speaking (Flemish) ministers is equal to the number of French speaking (Walloon) ministers.
Moreover, there exist a multitude of extra safeguards within the country to protect the rights of the minority, the French speaking people. Every change in the political institutions and governance of the country can only move forward if all the parties around the table agree. In order to make changes in the country, an overall two thirds majority is needed and a majority in each language group. Over the
past decades, this has given rise to the so-called “Belgian compromise” in which every party can claim victory, but which produces extremely complex political agreements. But the political minds in the country have changed compared to a few decades ago. Politicians of this political generation do not know their counterparts intimately as was once the case in the 1960’s, when there still existed national political parties and one public opinion. Today, Flemish and Walloons live in their own political landscape, have their own public opinions, and their own economic realities. The different results in the last federal elections also reflect this. Those are other reasons why it is becoming increasingly difficult to generate a synthesis at the federal political level. In many aspects, from economy, over culture and even matters of migration, the overall basic political analyses and positions are different.

Belgium at a glance: territory, population and economy
Some basic geopolitical and geo-economic data can also shed a bit more insight into the basic Belgian parameters :
• Belgium has a surface of 32.545 km² (Flanders: 13.522 km² / Wallonia: 16.844 km²)
• Population: 10.5 million (until the 1970s officially “bilingual”, but not in practice)
– 6.1 million Flemish / Dutch-speaking (but sometimes they feel as a ‘minority’ since every political decision has to be taken by consensus at the federal level, which gives Wallonia a de facto veto-power in all matters of political importance)
– 3.4 million Walloons / French-speaking (but sometimes they feel ‘second class’-citizens
since they no longer constitute the bulk of the economic & political elite)
– 1 million people Brussels (a population which has become international since 1957. French and English are now the two most important languages here. Although Brussels used to be a Flemish city in the nineteenth century, it has become a political entity in itself. For the Flemish nationalist parties, this is difficult to accept)
– 88.000 German-speaking people (in the east, close to the German border)
• GDP/head : $47.108 (but great differences within the country!)
– Flanders generates about 60% of the total Belgian Gross National Product (GNP), 81% of the total exports, and attracts 60% of the foreign direct investments in Belgium. Since the financial crisis, these figures have somewhat evolved in favour of Wallonia. Nevertheless, Flanders is still the most outward looking in its economy. It is not a coincidence that trade relations are considered very important in the external relations of the Flemish economy;
– As a consequence, Flanders is richer than Wallonia, but during the past years it has suffered a lot from the ‘dialectics of progress’. Wallonia is in some economic niches advancing more rapidly compared to Flanders (for instance in renewable energy).
Furthermore, Wallonia has invested a lot in its economy via the so-called ‘Marshal Plan’.
• The national debt is currently 101% of the country’s GDP. However, that figure is in relative terms much lower than in the beginning of the 1990s, when the national debt comprised 123% of the country’s GDP. Since the economic crisis, the country’s debt rose only moderately, a result with which the country scores best of all European countries. The allegation that Belgium can be seen as a “problematic country” in economic terms like Greece of Ireland, is
thus hardly valid. Moreover, the Belgian federal state finances most of the debt via the Belgian population, not via the international money markets. However, today “political instability” is mentioned by credit institutions such as Moody’s to refer to Belgium, and to lower the
country’s credit worthiness. As a result, the national debt can only be refinanced via higher interest rates. The spread between what Germany pays versus Belgium is around 1% extra.

What is the fuss all about?
So, what is happening today? In short, Belgium in all its complexities is trying to find a new internal balance. This political process is called a “state reform”. In fact, the current debate is already the sixth
major state reform debate in the country since the 1970’s. In that sense, what is happening in the country today is nothing out of the ordinary. Previous state reforms have devolved more and more
competences from the federal level to the two regional levels. But the process via which this has been realised was through difficult compromises. Often only some aspects of competency areas were
devolved, so that in fact most competency areas are in part federal and in part regional. Shared competences do not exist in the Belgian model. This has made the governance of the country
extremely difficult. Already since the 1980’s, there has been a cry to create ‘homogeneous competency areas’, for instance in economic matters. Flemish politicians would very much like to see
that the regions (both Flanders and Wallonia) receive all economic competencies, the “Full Monty” as Flemish nationalist politician Siegfried Bracke recently suggested. However, this proposal is met by extreme resistance at the Walloon side. Walloon politicians fear that devolving the rest of employment competencies (such as the reactivation of jobless people) or aspects of social security to the regions, in fact means ending the solidarity at the federal level. Those competencies, they claim, contain the essence of the solidarity mechanisms within Belgium. But Flemish politicians on the other hand claim that exactly those competencies should go to the regions so as to develop a tailor made economic policy for each of the regions.
Of course, also symbols play a role in the current political stalemate. Flemish politicians would like to see the language law of 1962 applied fully on Dutch speaking territory, including in those communities around Brussels which have evolved over time into largely French-speaking ones. They only want to give more money to Brussels if the language laws are respected. Flemish politicians have a lot of trouble in accepting that Brussels “is lost forever” as a Flemish, Dutch-speaking city and refer to the Flemish living in those communities, who almost feel like a minority within their own territory…
The problem in the negotiations today is that the maximum the Walloons are offering in the devolving of competencies does not link by far to the minimum the Flemish are ready to accept. The question
who is to blame for this, is not very relevant. Are the Flemish nationalists to blame, because they ask too much? Or are the Walloon socialists to blame, because they live in the illusion that Belgium can stay as it was forever? From the point of political science, what is relevant is that it still seems difficult to make a synthesis. The traditional Belgian compromise is yet more difficult to achieve than ever.
Perhaps the method of negotiation which was used these last 215+ days, should be different. Up until now, politicians have talked starting from the federal competencies, and looking at which competency area could be devolved to the regions. This produces a zero sum game – a negotiation in which Flanders scores one point extra when a certain competency-level is (partly) devolved, which should then be compensated by another claim from the Walloon point of view. It is clear that a zero sum game negotiation will never produce a real result. But there is a solution, and the key can be found in article 35 of the constitution. This article states that the process can also be different; namely by identifying all the competency-areas that are federal, and then supposing that all the rest of the competencies are regional. From a political point of view, such a negotiation is much easier to conduct for the political parties than the current one. It could be a way to create a positive sum game. Let us be clear, every competency area that is devolved to the regions, is not only devolved to the Flemish government, but also to the Walloon regional government and to the French-speaking community government. Moreover, the Belgians need to make a new contract with one another what the key areas are upon which they agree that they should be governed at the central level. Only via creating a consensus on the core competencies of the central level can the rest be also resolved.

Towards a Belgian confederation?
Institutional changes always come later – after de facto, political changes. My claim is that the current crisis does not mean the end of Belgium as a country. It is virtually impossible or very difficult to break the country up because of Brussels. But what the current crisis shows is that the political reality in the country has changed so drastically that it has become, in effect and in the facts a confederation – a loose cooperation of different regions and communities who do things together, but who also try to
develop policies that are specifically tailor made to themselves. In 1970, the then Belgian Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens stated before the House of Representatives that “the unitary state was
superseded by the events, and that a federation now took its place”. It may be that a future Prime Minister by analogy will claim that “the Belgian federation is superseded by the events, and that a new
confederation will take its place”. How much time will be needed before the current parties realize this?

Dr David Criekemans is a Senior Researcher at the Flemish Centre for International Policy (FCIP), an Assistant Professor in Belgian and Comparative Foreign Policy at the University of Antwerp, and a
Lecturer in Geopolitics at the International Centre for Geopolitical Studies in Geneva (Switzerland).

This article reflects the author’s personal vision.

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