Guest post: Belgian coalition negotiations: the end of a country?
November 12, 2010 § 3 Comments
Chris Terry: co-founder of the Britain Votes blog and an expert in European politics, has again written about coalitions in the low countries: Belgium this time.
Belgian politics is confusing, so if you haven’t I suggest you read this first. Here’s Chris:
If you thought the Dutch coalition negotiations were messy, you should see the Belgian ones. The Belgian election was held on the 13th of June and not only has no government been formed since then but the talks are essentially stalled, at worse than square one. Belgium is a convoluted quagmire of a country, with politics wrapped out in language and identity in a way incomparable with anywhere else in Europe.
History of a divided country
Belgium was formed in 1830 from the South of the Netherlands after the Belgian Revolution, where the Southern provinces which came to make up Belgium seceded in fear that the majority Catholic provinces would be overwhelmed by the Protestant Dutch monarchy and elite. However the country had French-speaking nobility and elite, a holdover from the Napoleonic wars, who desired to create a Francophone nation. Belgium’s existence was solidified with the Treaty of London, when the British, in a move of stunning realpolitik supported the Catholic state’s existence against the wishes of their Dutch ally in fear the French would take it, promising to invade any country that attacked it in the process (setting the scene for WWI 75 years later). Charles de Gaulle would later state “Belgium is a country created by the British to annoy the French.” Due to their desire to create a Francophone nation the Belgian elite made the only official language French and adopted a policy of essentially repressing Flemish, the Dutch dialect of Northern Belgium. They were aided in this by the fact that the Francophone southern half, Wallonia, was the first area of Europe to completely transition to an industrial economy, whereas the Northern Flemish-speaking half, Flanders, had a largely agricultural economy. Economic and political weight behind them the Walloons held all the cards. Nonetheless a low level campaign for Flemish equality proceeded, the first moves to deal with this were taken in 1893, but a slow process of equalisation continued. To Walloon annoyance a large number of Flemish nationalists collaborated with the Nazis in WWII creating additional bad blood along the way. From the 1960s onwards things started to reach breaking point, with famous protests at the University of Leuven at French language lectures amongst other pressures. At the same time the industrial heartlands of Wallonia began to go into decline whereas at the same time Flanders became a new centre for new service-based corporations, booming into economic success. The country proceeded down a path of division, reaching the situation today.
The situation today
As outlined by Fred already Belgium politics is marked by remarkable devolution for such a small country. As of the 1995 coalition revision there are three types of governing bodies which essentially matter: the federal parliament, the regions, and the communities. The regions and communities are very powerful. The regions are directly elected, and are Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. The communities are the Francophone, Flemish and German. Only the German community is directly elected, the Francophone community is made up of Walloon deputies and Francophone Belgian deputies, whereas the Flemish community and region have merged and is the same body as the Flemish region. Communities look after education, culture, language policy and social welfare; regions have powers such as those over housing, public works, economics and so on. Perhaps the most surprising power is the capability of regions to form trade deals with independent states. However the regions and communities have no ability to levy taxes. Communities overlap somewhat. Along the border, and in and around Brussels both communities exist.
Devolution of power downwards has been matched by devolution of power upwards. Belgian governments tend to be extremely pro-European. The idea is that by devolving power both up to the EU and down to the regions the Belgian federal government is essentially hollowed out, with less power comes less ability to offend. Culturally Walloons and Flems are completely divided. The media is completely separate, as are education and even political parties.
Bones of Contention
There are two main bones of contention between communities: economic inequalities between communities and Brussels.
Due to the much healthier Flemish economy, the difference between Flanders and Wallonia could not be more different. Flemish unemployment, for instance, is half that of Wallonia, with Wallonia having unemployment of 11.2% in 2009 compared to 5% for Flanders. Meanwhile Flanders GDP per capita was 118% of EU27 GDP in 2006, whereas in Wallonia it was 85.1%. As the vast majority of regional funding still comes from the federal government therefore many Flemish see their rich region as being forced to subsidise a declining Walloon region which once repressed them. This is not helped by the large size of the Belgian state itself, with Belgium having some of the highest taxes in Europe and a large public debt, which creates further animosity. The constant presence in government of the Parti Socialiste the Francophone left-wing party which dominates Wallonia makes Flemish attempts to change this very difficult.
The other bone of contention is Brussels. The historic capital of Flanders, Brussels is believed to be 80% Francophone. Technically these Francophones are not Walloons. Rather they are generally the descendants of Flems who moved to Brussels to work in the government and came to be Francophone as a result. Like all great cities Brussels has a tendency to spread outwards, and there are many Flemish municipalities outside Brussels with majority Francophone populations. Most of these are covered by the Francophone community, but it is difficult to tell how far the Francophones spread into Flanders as a language census has not been completed since 1960. Halting the census meant freezing the lingual boundaries where they were and stopping the fear of a Francophone ‘takeover’ of Flemish territory.
A spin-off of this is the electoral constituency and judicial arrodisement of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. Possibly the only electoral constituency anywhere on Earth to have a Wikipedia page that is many pages long with no election results, BHV is at the centre of the kind of controversy that only a country like Belgium can have. Essentially BHV contains Brussels and a few surrounding Flemish areas. This means that Francophones in the area can vote for Francophone Brussels parties, but BHV was found unconstitutional. Since then Flemish and Francophone parties have been unable to compromise on the constituency meaning that two elections have now been fought with a constituency that has been found unconstitutional. Flems consider the constituency to be particularly discriminatory as Flemish speakers in Wallonia cannot vote for Flemish parties in any area.
Nonetheless, it can easy to exaggerate the Belgian linguistic divide, and this is something which often annoys Belgians. It is worth underlining that polls repeatedly show that Flems do not desire independent, and there is even a reasonably sized minority of Flems who favour a centralised unitary state. Violence and discrimination between communities is very rare, even in areas where they live side by side (with perhaps the exception of Brussels where there is occasional problems). In many ways therefore the linguistic divide is not a divide between people but between politicians, rooted in the Belgian party system.
Belgian party system
As already mentioned the main Belgian parties split in the 1970s. At the time there were three major parties – the Christian Social/People’s Party (name change depending on region), Belgian Labour Party and the liberal Party for Freedom and Progress/Party for Liberty and Progress. As time has gone separate Green parties have also arisen, and parties have changed their names for local regions. Therefore there can be said to be four cross-Belgium party groups, which separate as follows:
|Party group/ideology||Flemish Party||Francophone Party|
|Christian Democracy||Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V)||Humanist Democratic Centre (cdH)|
|Social Democrat/Socialist||Socialist Party – Different (SP.A)||Socialist Party (PS)|
|Liberal||Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD)||Reformist Movement (MR)|
These name changes are tied to ideological changes linked to cultural differences between the two regions. Flanders is more Catholic, is richer, and therefore more economically liberal, and more nationalistic. Wallonia is more secular, poorer, and thus more socialistic.
Therefore typically the dominant party in Flanders is CD&V. Christian Democratic and Flemish has notably added the ‘and Flemish’ to its name to reflect a more Flemish nationalist stance as time as gone on. CD&V now supports a Belgian Confederacy, with the regions technically being sovereign, and this was a great source of conflict during the 2007 coalition negotiations which lasted nine months. The Humanist Democratic Centre however is a far less influential party, having just fallen behind Ecolo in the last regional election (though it beat them in the federal election). In order to gain further popularity the Francophone party took a more secular centre-left position. Its name change reflects this. Since then the party has basically moved into a position reminiscent of Tony Blair and closely allied itself to the Socialist Party. During the 2007 negotiations it demanded the PS be brought into the government and the two party leaders gave a joint interview during the election. The cdH is often PS’s coalition partner of choice at a regional level as well. Additionally cdH has taken an intransigent view towards increased powers for the regions, with its leader, Joelle Milquet nicknamed ‘Madam Non’ by the Flemish press due to her apparent inability to compromise. Indeed much of the conflict of the 2007 negotiations was between Flemish and Francophone Christian Democrats. However this has no doubt made the party distinctive to Walloon voters and the party is important due to its alliance with the PS and the CD&V.
In Wallonia the dominant party is the Socialist Party. PS is so dominant in Wallonia that there has not been a government led by another party since 1988. The Socialist Party is a largely unreconstructed Social Democratic party. These are your daddy’s socialists, clearly on the left and largely rejecting ‘third way’ strategies and ideologies. They don’t need them – they win anyway. The party’s dominance has also led to something of a reputation for corruption. Meanwhile the Flemish party has called itself ‘Socialist Party – Different’ which is essentially the Flemish equivalent of changing your name to ‘New Labour’. SP.A is very much in the third way model, largely due to its much weaker position.
The Liberals are generally the second party in both regions. Originally the Liberal movement in Belgium was solidly right-wing, however of late they have drifted to the centre becoming more Social Liberal in outlook. Of the three main party groups this is the one with the highest consensus and which operates most cohesively.
The Greens also generally agree and operate together well. They are solidly left wing and Green! (the exclamation mark is part of the name) has adopted a position sucking up voters who reject SP.A’s third way ideology. Ecolo tends to more influential due to its size, and Green! is currently the smallest Flemish party in the Flemish parliament.
Additionally there are several major Flemish only parties. Two of these originated from the Flemish People’s Movement, a party which sought to unite all Flemish nationalists. The first is Flemish Interest (VB) which originated from a split in the party. Flemish Interest is a far-right and separatist party that has performed very well. Until this year it was the second largest Flemish party. Most of its support comes from its law and order and immigration positions rather than any great desire for Flemish Independence. There is also some evidence to suggest that as Belgium has compulsory voting certain disaffected voters use VB as a way to stick two fingers up at the elite. The party is extremely controversial and victim to a cordon sanitaire which is to say that all other parties have agreed not to cooperate or work with it. Despite its voters not necessarily being dyed-in-the-wool Flemish nationalists the major Flemish parties, especially CD&V, have responded to it by expanding their own Flemish nationalist credentials. The other party to have originated from the People’s Movement is the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). As the Movement declined as other parties took on the nationalist cause and it was eclipsed by VB it declined and eventually split into centre-left and centre-right wings. Both wings formed joint lists with larger parties – N-VA with CD&V and the centre-left with SP.A, the centre-left eventually merged into Green! but N-VA has cut loose and become the largest Flemish party, winning the elections. N-VA has a centre-right liberal-conservative ideology, comparable to David Cameron’s.
Two other parties have a single seat each. The first is List Dedecker which is a splinter from the VLD led by Jean-Marie Dedecker who computed that there was space for a new right-wing liberal movement with the VLD’s centrist strides. His control-freakery caused the party to implode and his voters have mostly been sucked up by the N-VA. The other party is a young Walloon party with a similar ideology – the People’s Party.
The difficulty of Coalition Formation
Coalition formation has been dominated by discussions of constitutional reform. The negotiations have centred on the two Socialist parties, N-VA and the two Christian Democratic parties. In addition the Greens have had to be included because a deal on constitutional reform requires 2/3rds support in order to be passed. Predictably coalition negotiations have broken down and started up again multiple times with the blame being levied in a predictable way. The Liberals have presented themselves as available for the coalition. The problem, however, lies in the divide between Flemish and Walloon parties. No party represents all Belgians anymore, so there is no real moderating influence. Coalition formation is a battle between communities as a result, Walloon parties vs. Flemish ones. On both sides the divide creates competition for nationalistic rather than moderate voters as moderate voters will generally vote down more traditionally ideological patterns. As such there is competition in terms of ethnic intransigence, with parties essentially in competition to prove that it is they who will stand up for their community their most. As I mentioned earlier polls show that Belgians are not as nationalistic as their party system suggests, and this is the root of the problem, the structure of parties encourages conflict between communities. If Belgium ceases to exist I suspect it will be like the end of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia did not end because the people wanted it to, polls showed a minority in favour of a split on both sides, but Czech and Slovak parties reached a stalemate. Czech politicians wanted to turn the federal Czechoslovak state into a unitary one, whereas Slovak politicians wanted to devolve power further. The Velvet Divorce was born, centrally, of this split between politicians, not a split between national groups.
That said Belgian politicians are far more experienced at politics than that fledgling democracy’s and there are also far bigger barriers, particularly the issue of Brussels, a Francophone city in the midst of a Flanders. I have heard Flemish politicians say that if it were not for Brussels Belgium would be long gone, and the question of what to do with it if the country splits is vital. My favourite suggestion is to make it a self-governing post-national ‘Capital of Europe’ similar in status to Washington DC in the US, but this has obvious problems too. Ideas of becoming a confederacy on the Flemish side suggest that the country is reaching breaking point however – confederacies have historically done one of two things, either they have been a staging post on the road to federalism or they have been a staging post on the way to a country splitting apart. There are no ‘true’ confederacies that currently exist on Earth (though some argue that the EU is close). It is unlikely to say the least that Belgium would go from federalism to confederalism and then remain a confederacy. Whether Belgium continues to exist will depend on deft strategy by the Walloon parties, giving just enough to the Flemish to keep them happy, but not too much. This tightrope act seems unlikely to continue forever.
Meanwhile with the country continually thinking about constitutional reform, issues like economics get thrown to the side. As coalition negotiations continue on Belgium is one of the few European countries without a deficit reduction plan while it has staggering levels of national debt (84.6% of GDP, only Italy and Greece have higher debt in the EU). Getting agreement on economics is almost as tough as on constitutional reform what with a deal needing to be cracked between the Socialists on the one hand and the conservative N-VA on the other. If Belgium is to split too Flanders will be fine, it would be a small country, but rich and self-sustaining. Wallonia, however, would be plunged into crisis. There are suggestions that Wallonia could merge into France, but it is debatable how much the French would desire a poor trouble-making region.
Who knows what will happen to Belgium next, but whatever happens this country will continue to fascinate me.