The Sorrows of Belgium

Alan Trench says the ongoing struggle to form a coalition government in Belgium can only be viewed with a mixture of sympathy and admiration

My Edinburgh colleague Wilfried Swenden gave a fascinating presentation at a seminar there this week about the position Belgium presently finds itself in.  He’s kindly agreed to let me post the Powerpoint slides from his talk, which are here.

A quick refresher, first.  Since 1993, Belgium has had a curious federal system, in which there are three regional governments with ‘territorial’ based functions like environmental or transport services: Flanders, the Walloon Region, and Brussels.  It also has three community governments, providing services which are connected to the language one speaks, such as education or health: these are the French, Dutch and German speaking communities.  The Flemish region and Dutch-speaking community are merged, so they share a single parliament, unlike the others.  Of the functions retained by the federal government, the most important are financial – the funding by block grant of the regional and community governments, and the direct funding of key services including health through the social security system.  And the party system has fragmented, with separate parties for the two language groups which do not sit together, even when they share an ideological family like the social or Christian democrats.

Belgium has been without a federal government since the elections last June, so over five months now.  Forming a federal coalition has taxed the minds of almost every senior Belgian politician.  Coverage in the English-speaking media has focussed on problems relating to the electoral arrangements in Halle-Vilvoorde, and general antagonism between the largest French and Dutch-speaking parties.  However, as Wilfried explains, there is much more to the problem than that.  The stalemate is structural, arising from the determination of the Dutch-speaking parties to restructure the financial and fiscal system, and the equally strong desire of the French speakers to maintain the status quo.  The difference between the (more or less left-of-centre, pro-redistributionist) French-speaking parties and the (more or less right-of-centre, pro-free market) Dutch speaking ones has proved intractable.  In an attempt to find some way of forming a federal government, there have been ever more convoluted attempts to establish what exactly the parties’ economic demands are, how realistic and deliverable they might be, and how well (or not) they might be reconciled with those of other parties.  If this latest effort fails, it won’t be for want of trying.  And even more impressive is the extent to which the parties have adhered to the implicit rules of the game – even as they’re struggling with all these problems, they’ve not sought to leak details in pursuit of short-term advantage.

Regardless of one’s politics, it’s hard to look at Belgium with anything other than sympathy, mingled with admiration.  Theirs is an almighty mess, and a structural one to which there’s no easy solution.  But what is happening shows the practical as well as political difficulties to any sort of ‘break-up’ solution, however much Flemish nationalists may advocate that or journalists wish, messianically, to predict it.  And the sobriety and care with which all sides are engaged in the present process is quite a lesson to many here.

Those interested in Belgium should look at the hugely impressive website Rethinking Belgium, which contains a vast array of contributions (in English) by academics trying to work out what needs doing in constitutional terms to address Belgium’s various problems.  And this blog,Crisis in Belgium, provides an up-to-date account in English of the various political moves involved.

(I have pinched the title of this post from an excellent novel about Belgium by Hugo Claus, who died in 2008.  His obituary from the Guardian is here and from the Times is here, and his Wikipedia entry is here.  Sadly, it appears to be out of print at present.  Second-hand copies can be found here.  I recommend it highly, though Wikipedia also says it’s the most unread book in Flanders.)

This piece originally appeared on Alan Trench’s blog, Devolution Matters.

Alan Trench is an honorary senior research fellow at the Constitution Unit, University College London, and is also associated with the School of Social and Political Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

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