Director's column  

Luc Soete

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Director's column
Archived columns by former UNU-MERIT director Luc Soete.

In search of creative solutions to Belgiumís political surrealism

Amid so many events – from the marriage of Kate and William, the killing of bin Laden, popular revolts in Syria and Yemen, to the war in Libya – a piece on the intricacies of Belgian politics might seem rather poorly timed.  

But then again it would be a pity to leave the subject to Belgian journalists and opinion leaders. In fact, as a Belgian citizen and aficionado of salient Belgian news, every year for the last 15 years I have written at least one opinion piece on Belgium.

This is a country which has been run by a caretaker government for almost a year – while also going to war in Libya, negotiating national wage settlements between employers and trade unions, preparing and submitting its long-term budget plans to the European Commission for cutting its fiscal deficit by 2013 below the critical 3% deficit level – providing an interesting experimental insight into political legitimacy and even the costs of democracy.  

As if the best guarantee for Belgium to succeed in its fiscal austerity plans would be to continue without a government! Clearly credit rating agencies would have to revise their methods of threatening to downgrade a country´s public debt, as did Fitch last week with the case of Belgium. Not having a government might actually be a better guarantee for getting a country´s public debt under control: the caretaker doesn’t have to bother with public opinion.

Of course, one might argue, and I’m sure that some of my Flemish colleagues will be keen on doing so, that political and economic powers accruing to the country’s regional authorities (Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia) on the one hand, and to Europe on the other hand, have significantly contributed to the fact that Belgian’s economic performance appears not to have suffered too much, at least up to now, from the now more than one year old political crisis.

For sure if Belgium still had its own currency, the country would have had formed a new government long ago – an interesting negative feature of the euro few Belgian politicians might have considered back in 1992 at the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.  But neither the regional authorities nor the EC are ultimately a true democratic expression of Belgian decision making, as illustrated by the examples above about going to war, national wage negotiations or long-term budget allocations.   

The second reason why a piece on Belgian politics seemed particularly appropriate today is that it seems as if no-one in the Belgian political arena has any clue about finding a solution which would be coherent and analytically logical, and hence acceptable to both parts of the country. It even seems that there is no longer any political will to find a solution to the Belgian crisis.

Personally, I do not subscribe to the view that there is a deliberate attempt at political sabotage of the country coming from either side of the political language spectrum. I rather believe that the two regional sets of policy makers – the Flemish and French speaking politicians – have locked themselves into electoral promises to their own electors which now prevent them from finding any compromise solutions acceptable to those electors; a typical self-reinforcing, political scoring drift which becomes increasingly disconnected from the political reality of compromise. 

This holds for both sides of the political spectrum. It represents the perfect example of the political stalemate. The only way to break it up is through external intervention. In this case neither war nor a ‘royal councillor’, but rather… ME! Or rather my ideas!

What today is the core problem that makes Belgium seemingly impossible to govern? Well, long before the present crisis, political scientists warned about introducing dual federalist structures within nation states. By definition these structures encourage political duality. In the case of Belgium, the asymmetric reform structure chosen with two communities: the Flemish and French speaking ones (for simplicity I leave out the small German speaking community) and three regions: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels ultimately became a political nightmare from which it is practically impossible to find a consensus reform solution.

Asymmetry has a lot to do with this: two language communities have varying relevance to each of the three regions. Total, exclusive relevance for each of the two unilingual regions: Flanders and Wallonia, and joint relevance for the third region Brussels: the bilingual capital region.

But of course as has become visible over the years, the common joint responsibility of the Flemish and French speaking communities over Brussels has been one of the main reasons why Brussels became anything but a bilingual city in which Flemish and French speakers were on an equal footing. Integrating Wallonia with Brussels to form one French speaking community/region offers from this perspective no solution, just as calling Brussels the capital of Flanders has not contributed in any way to reinvigorating the Flemish identity of Brussels.

The first solution to the Belgian problem would be to follow a symmetrical approach to Belgian state reform: in other words creating a third community alongside the French and Flemish speaking areas: a bilingual Brussels community. This would be responsible for creating bilingual (Flemish-French) education, culture and media in the Brussels region. Its success would be gauged in terms of how many Brussels citizens became fully bilingual.  The existence of this Brussels community within the Brussels region would also guarantee the long-term role of Brussels as the capital of Belgium.

Why would this solve anything? Central to the current Belgian debate is the increasing focus on uni-lingual Flemish or French culture and education as developed by the two language communities. This focus is understandable within their own regions, as it has resulted in the further cultural and intellectual development of both Flanders and Wallonia.

The division of the University of Louvain in the 1960s into the KUL in Leuven and the UCL in Louvain-la-Neuve was in this sense a logical step on the path to Flemish emancipation. More broadly, and contrary to what the UN Convention on the protection of minority languages might imply, the sole use of the Dutch language within the Flemish region was also part of this emancipation. Within Brussels though, a purely unilingual approach to education managed and funded either by the Flemish or by the French speaking communities, is totally misguided.

What was (and is) still needed, was the creation of a bilingual Brussels community to ensure that the Brussels region would become a truly bilingual capital in terms of education, culture and media. Bilingualism so that both Walloons and Flemish citizens would feel at home in Brussels, and that Brussels citizens would easily find jobs not only in Brussels but also in Flanders and in Wallonia, totally reversing the trend of high unemployment amongst unilingual Brussels youngsters.

For the Brussels community it represents a long-term challenge, taking the example of other bilingual cities including Luxembourg and Basel. Ultimately, language remains the Achilles’ heel of Belgium, Brussels and one might even argue Europe.   

There are other ideas which I do not have the space here to explore. One much more radical idea is to pursue further the idea of creating a ‘Belgian Union’ as proposed by Johan Vande Lanotte, the previous “royal councillor” consisting of four regions: Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels and the small German speaking Belgian Eastern region (60,000 people).

Interesting as this idea might seem at first sight, a much more logical alternative would be to use the actually existing ‘BENELUX union’ as the structure for a new multi-level governance framework. Of course each of the three Benelux countries would keep their national prerogatives in those areas of crucial importance to their national identity: the royal families in each of the three countries, the national football teams and the national public debts.

Moreover, Benelux would be in a position to remain part of the governing board of the IMF, to become one of the participants of the G20, and to integrate more fully a number of activities associated with for example the country’s foreign representations (embassies), defence activities, police and remaining border security.  

At the same time the six regions/states – in declining population size order: The Netherlands, Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels, Luxembourg, the German-speaking Eastern region of Belgium – would be in a position to further integrate particular policies useful to each and where the greatest benefits might be obtained in terms of reaping scale advantages.

One may think of education, culture and research but even the labour market between The Netherlands and Flanders, or education and culture between Luxembourg and the German-speaking Eastern region. In short become an experimental, international cross-border region within the EU trying out the further bilateral integration of national/regional policies. In Eurobabble this would be à géometrie variable – something particularly relevant to other cross-border regions in Europe. And with one bilingual city: Brussels in the centre of this European experimental region.

Perhaps someone from Laeken palace will give me a call?

Luc Soete

May, 2011


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