The trouble with Flanders

As The Economist’s Charlemagne columnist puts it, “Why Belgium’s unending linguistic disputes matter to Europe.”

You may not be aware that Belgium has just set a new record for any European state operating without an elected government — now over 230 days. This [surpasses ed. why doesn’t strikethrough work? It does now] is on course to surpass the 289 days (source: The Economist) it took Iraq to form its current government.

Belgium is the textbook case study of consociational power sharing — the type of power sharing whereby executive power is distributed among predefined groups (in Belgium’s case, linguistic Dutch-speakers (Flemish) versus French-speakers (Walloons), not forgetting its German-speakers).

This theory of government works under particular conditions, one of which is an “overarching loyalty” to some higher authorative figure/institution in the state. In Belgium this would be the monarcy and Albert II, King of the Belgians.

In the current crisis, King Albert has summoned no less than seven individuals to try to unblock the political impasse. There have been eight rounds of attempts. At one point, on 29 August 2010, the king refused the resignation of “pre-formateur” Elio Di Rupo (leader, Socialist Party), sending him out to try again. When Di Rupo’s further attempt failed, the king accepted his resignation on 3 September 2010.

The current “informateur”, Didier Reynders, is due to report back to the king on 16 February 2011.

Meanwhile, a caretaker government continues.

Why all this matters is because of the context in which it is taking place.

There is no question of any of the political groups resorting to violence to achieve secession. Indeed, Charlemagne quotes Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations:

By “taking the gun out of politics” the EU has contradictory effects. It makes it easier to draw violent groups into politics; but it also allows peaceful nationalists to act up, and voters to support them, because there is no danger of bloodshed.

Well, here in Northern Ireland we have suffered from both effects, haven’t we?

Yet Charlemagne points to an interesting paradox — “the slow dissolution of Belgium, the most pro-European of countries, goes hand in hand with the (uneven) deeper integration of the EU”.

Thus, I think we’re stuck with this European political symptom for some time to come.

Charlemagne ends on an optimistic note that Flemings and Wallons will live together for the sake of Brussels, as a larger split would wreck political and economic havoc for this city.

I am not so optimistic. When we approached Brussels municipal officials about our Forum for Cities in Transition project and invited them to an pilot conference, they declined, stating that they were not in conflict nor had anything in common with divided cities. True the citizens of Brussels haven’t experienced political violence, but I still find its denial of having anything to learn or share with other divided cities astounding.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Could we see the day the Flemish join the Netherlands, the Waloons France, and the wee German bits Germany? would tidy up the mess, Brussels could then become a city state, and plaything of the EU.

  • Sean Og

    Brussels could be the EU’s Washington DC?

  • How does the Belgians 230 days without an elected government surpass the Iraqis 289 days?

  • Zachariah Tiffins Foot

    It doesn’t, and I believe that the Iraqi figure was more like 249 days.

    I had some business dealings in Belgium and spent time based at Aalst city north of Brussels. Over drinks with local contacts, who were Flemish, the chat turned to local issues. Many times I was struck by their casual negative sterotyping of the Walloons as work-shy, ‘dirty’ and being a burden on the Flemish who were seen, by themselves, to be more hardworking with a ‘northern european’ attitude to life, as opposed to the feckless, as they saw it, southern types.

    Violence was never brought up as any kind of option but they seemed supportive of a more independent Flanders.

    BTW just to avoid the possibility of anyone thinking that it was just like home I’d mention that the Flemish I talked with were not big on the Royal family as according to them being able to speak Flemish is only a relatively recent royal attribute.

  • Drumlins Rock

    And before anyone else jumps to conclusions, the Country is all nominally Catholic, Flemish & Walloon, and as their Royalty is of more recent origin with a very murky history in the Congo it probably is tolerated more than loved.

  • The place is a civil war waiting to happen

  • orly


    They’re Belgians. They’d probably need an instruction manual to get to the “declaring war” bit.

    Belgium has always struck me as a particularly “made-up” country. Similar to how you’d see Switzerland if they didn’t have their independent quirky ways and bonkers laws.

  • Munsterview

    Intell…. “How does the Belgians 230 days without an elected government surpass the Iraqis 289 days?……”

    Because Dear Boy, despite all the Official Western Establishment BS references to Elections and Democracy, the Western Media know that what took place in Iraq bear little resemblance to what constitutes either elections or democracy in the understood Western meaning of the word.

  • Belgium has no elected government? So?

    Others might suggest that Belgium as an entity is ungovernable; but I’d maintain the provinces (arguably, Flanders more so than Wallonia) are doing a pretty good job.

    ¶ For the last six quarters the GDP has increased by 0.1%, 1%, 0.4%, 0.1%, 1% and 0.4%: estimated annual rate of 2.1%. So no “wrong kind of snow” there.
    ¶ Inflation is around 2.8%, and the unemployment rate some 8.4%. Neither, by our local standards, too dusty.
    ¶ Per capita income is over 20% higher than the UK (and the differential increasing).
    ¶ About two-thirds of GDP are exports. Productivity is higher than that of Germany, if eroded by rising wage costs (Belgium has index-linking, higher social welfare costs, strict enforcement of working time, and better job security).

    The beers are not bad either.

  • The EU’s previous champion, the Czech Republic, pottered along quite merrily without any government for nearly 6 months back in 2006 with no lasting side-effects, for the vast majority of the citizenry, on a daily basis life continued just as normal.

    Perhaps there was even a bit less state-level corruption than usual because none of the competing elites wanted to take a chance in case it wasn’t their elite that would be later holding the reins.

    Within the EU, supranational governmental, economic and political frameworks are so tight anyway there’s not much difference in the short-term whether you have a government or not.

  • oneill @ 7:03 pm may be correct in some regard (though I suspect he may be also coat-dragging about EU democratic deficit and the harsh truths of global capitalism).

    Where the Belgians score is precisely because they have good devolved government. Central government powers are thereby equally circumscribed. We don’t have similar provisions; and we now have yet another centralising Westminster government anxious to neuter local and regional administrations even further. That is another, perhaps more pernicious form of democratic deficit.

    Now I’ll stop dragging my coat.

  • Before this thread goes to its immortal electronic resting-place, may I pick up on Mr Ulster‘s final paragraph and point?

    Why should we be surprised by the official position of the Bruxelles/Brussel authorities? The capital is nominally bilingual (but increasingly Francophone): everyone seems also to manage excellent English. My main problem there is the distinction between smoking and non-smoking bars (you have to check the sign in the window first; and never trust the legal requirement to have a no-smoking area). Certainly no signs of civil unrest of which I’m aware.

    There is, though, one place where it did occur: Leuven/Louvain, a favourite resort of mine. It’s a bit too far from the ferry/chunnel for the English coach-, hen- and stag-parties (but onward travel from Brussels, throughout Belgium, is nicely included in the Eurostar fare). It’s even possible to avoid the ubiquitous InBev products (that huge complex by the railway is the home of Stella, heaven help us).

    Leuven was/is the location of the Catholic University of Louvain. Until the 1930s, all teaching was through the medium of French. Leuven is a Vlaamse-speaking city. The Dutch speakers agitated for teaching in their own tongue. In the 1960s, the two language traditions began separate teaching programmes. Agitation increased as the Vlaamse community felt alienated: this was the cause of the national government’s collapse in 1968.

    The solution was quite drastic, but pragmatic. The Francophone section became the Université Catholique de Louvain and was re-established in Wallonia at the new town of Louvain-la-Neuve. Leuven retains the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (which now teaches some courses through the medium of … English)

  • Chrislowry

    [bump] – Is anyone still reading this?

    I am Belgian (and Flemish, but that word has gotten a pejorative feeling for me) (and found this little blog entry a few minutes ago).

    You know what the problem with Belgium is? There are simply too many politicians.

    The political situation overe here (i.e. in Belgium) is _purely_ political (the Flemish separatists – sorry, I probably have to call them “Flemish-nationalists” – would disagree, of course).
    No Flemish has murdered a Wallonian, nor any Wallonian a Flemish.
    No Wallonian/Flemish villages or towns are being “ethnically cleansed”.
    Wallonians and Flemish people go on vacation at one another, work together, get married, have children together.
    The only difference a Wallonian has, compared to me, is the fact that s/he speaks French. Oh yes, there are a few 100,000 Belgians who speak German.
    There are absolutely no problems between Flemish and Wallonian people (except between those who, for some to me incomprehensible reason, cherish “nationalist” feelings, both in Wallonia as in Flanders).
    No, Belgium isn’t perfect, and if there are “problems”, then they should be solved. But _not_ by abolishing the country, for heaven’s sake!

    We have 5 (if I am not mistaking, for who can keep track of it?…) governments (federal, regional), for a country of 10 million people. Ya’d think governing 10 million people would be easier…

    I am so disgusted by (Belgian) politics.

    Article 62 of the Belgian constitution determines that voting is obligatory, “or else”. Well, last year in June (2010) I refused to go and vote, and from now on I will continue to do so. I refuse to vote for people/parties that do not have the interests of my country in mind. And if “the government” ever dares taking me to court, then I will be very interested in hearing what the European Court of Human Rights would have to say about that. I have the right to vote for _no one_, and no law, no person, not even the King himself, has the right to force me. Anyway.

    I am so disgusted by Belgian politics. Oh, my apologies, I already wrote that.

    I am Belgian, and damn proud of it!
    Long live Belgium, leve België, vive la Belgique, es lebe Belgien (in four languages, there ya go).

  • Chrislowry (profile) 3 March 2011 at 8:33 pm:

    I’ve been in (both parts of) Belgium/Belgie since … ummm … 1966. It is one of the most bourgeois civilised spots in the known universe. Belgian politics are the most advanced in the western world: they have evolved beyond the “nation state”. Government works in Belgium because it is devolved. Belgians have a decent, honest, properly-cynical perspective on life. They eat well; they drink very well (they send the crap Stella our way, to their great profit), and they sleep soundly. What’s wrong with that?

    Don’t apologise for a success story.

  • Munsterview

    Chrislowry : In fact I attended the presentation of a Post Grad paper giving a Belgian overview, but concentrating on the Malmedy region at a history seminar yesterday afternoon. In comparison it makes the devisions, politics and historical baggage of Fermanagh/ South Tyrone seem relatively straight forward.

  • Chrislowry

    Malcolm Redfellow, could you _please_ make the politicians over here see that Belgium is, indeed, a succes story?

    I have been on vacation to South Africa last year. I came back home and I realised how good Belgium (and the entire “developed world”, for that matter) is to live in.
    The Americans can envy our (expensive) social welfare state (states).

    And these politicians over here want to destroy Belgium, because they think it is a “failed state”. It makes me so sad.

    My late grandfather fought for Belgium in WW2. His best friend died in Holland. For the first time in my life, I fear for the future of my country. It fills my heart with sorrow. I honestly have no idea what is going to happen here, politically.

    If Flanders ever does become an independent republic, then I will consider emigrating. New Zealand looks like a nice country. No kidding.