Belgium: crisis, what crisis?

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by Paul Kavanagh

Today Belgium becomes an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.  For 250 days Belgium has lacked a national government, beating the record previously held by Iraq when in the aftermath of the US led invasion the various Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions took 249 days of anguished and conflict ridden discussion in order to reach a provisional agreement to form a new government.  But the Belgian governmental crisis is most notable for scarcely being a crisis at all. The streets are still cleaned, public officials still go to work, schools are still open and the trains, operated by a nationalised railway company, still run pretty much on time.

The structure of Belgian government is complex, a reflection of the deep rooted linguistic and social divisions within the country.  The Dutch speaking Flemings in the north make up about 60% of the population, the vast bulk of the remaining population is made up of the French speaking Walloons in the south, although there is also an important German speaking minority in the east.  The boundary between the two runs roughly east west just to the south of Brussels.

Until the early 20th century, a slight majority of Belgians were French speakers, and the southern industrial regions which form the heartland of Wallonia were the motor of the Belgian economy and generated much of the country’s wealth.  French was the sole official language, and Dutch speakers felt that they were discriminated against.  But as the 20th century progressed the demographic and economic balance began to shift.  By the 1950s the Dutch speaking population outnumbered the French, and the Flemish region was becoming economically dominant as the traditional industries of Wallonia went into decline.

The tensions resulted in the ‘language wars’ of the 1960s.  In order to meet the competing demands of the Dutch speaking and French speaking communities, the national government became a federal government, and a cumbersome system of overlapping “language community governments” and regional governments was set up.  The federal government retains control of justice, defence, social security provision, the nationalised railway and postal service, and Belgium’s international relations with other countries.

There are three language communities, one each for the Dutch, the French and the German speakers.  The language community governments are responsible for education and social service provision, health, media and a number of other areas.

There are also three regions. Flanders in the north is solidly Dutch speaking, whereas Wallonia in the south is equally solidly French speaking, except for an area in the east along the German border where German is the official language. The regions control territorial based issues like water, economic development, and agriculture.

But the greatest bone of contention is the national capital Brussels which forms the third regional government. Brussels is a largely French speaking city, but it is situated inside the Dutch speaking region. Brussels is officially bilingual, and both the French language community government and the Dutch language community government provide services to the city’s citizens.  Although officially bilingual, a large majority of the city’s inhabitants are French speaking, and long entrenched social attitudes mean that French speakers rarely bother to learn Dutch.  In recent years the city has expanded beyond its official boundaries, resulting in a large French speaking population in municipalities in neighbouring districts of Dutch speaking Flanders.  Politicans have been unable to reach agreement on the overlapping competencies of the various levels of Belgian government in these districts.

Brussels is a sore point amongst Flemish nationalists.  The city was Dutch speaking until the industrial revolution of the early 19th century when it increased greatly in size and importance as the seat of Belgian government.  The linguistic balance shifted and the city became largely French speaking.  The over-riding concern of many Flemish politicians is to stop the so-called Francophone ‘oil spill’ from spreading into yet more Dutch speaking areas. These attitudes heavily colour negotiations on the status of Brussels.

Meanwhile resentment has grown in the increasingly prosperous north about the government subsidies to the increasingly impoverished Wallonia.  Like the industrial belt of Central Scotland, the traditional industries of Wallonia were devastated in the latter half of the 20th century, creating widespread poverty and deprivation.  Flemish politicians want changes to the constitution to give more rights to the regional and language communities and to reduce the transfer of funds from north to south.

The last Belgian general election produced deadlock.  The largest Flemish party, and the largest party overall, was the centre-right Nieuwe Vlaams Alliantie (N-VA) which is in favour of Flemish independence and the reduction of government subsidies.  The largest Walloon party was the Parti Socialiste which is as its name suggests a left of centre party in favour of government subsidies for poorer regions.  None of the parties were able to reach agreement on forming a coalition government, and due to the complexities of the social and linguistic divisions of Belgium none was able to form a minority administration.

This week the Belgian monarch, King Albert II, requested the caretake government to report on progress in solving the crisis by March 1. But there are few signs that an agreement is any closer.  Public exasperation with politicians is being expressed in typically humorous Belgian style, with the announcement of the French Fries Revolution – handing out the national dish, chips with mayonnaise to passers by – and a mass strip-off in Ghent, a sign perhaps that even the typically stoical patience of the Belgian public is beginning to run out.

Belgium has continually lurched from government crisis to government crisis since the 1960s, and this is certainly not the first time that news of its impending demise has been aired.  If Belgium does split into two countries, it will not be because the Flemings or Walloons are united only in their demand for independence from one another.  It will be because no one cares enough to keep Belgium together.  Belgium is perhaps a foretaste of what could happen in the United Kingdom, a state that falls apart because it has outlived its usefulness.