In mid-July, the Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme (Christian-Democrat Flemish party, CDV) tried to resign: for the third time. King Albert II once more refused to accept the resignation and appointed a three-person commission to resolve the deadlock. This week it reports back to him, although the verdict will not be known for some days.
The immediate cause of the crisis was the CDV’s attempt, with its government partner Nieuw Vlaamse Alliantie (New Flemish Alliance, NVA) to implement a ruling of the Constitutional Court concerning electoral lists. The situation turns on fact that the Halle-Vilvoorde district surrounding Brussels city is part of the Flemish-speaking Vlaams-Brabant province (Leuven being the other part), while Brussels city is the country’s third federal region in addition to Flanders and Wallonia.
As a consequence, candidates of French-speaking parties in the unified Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) electoral district can receive votes from territories in Flanders, whereas no candidate of Flemish-speaking parties has any possibility to receive votes from territories in Wallonia. The court concluded that the existence of the unified BHV electoral district was therefore inequitable, since all other electoral districts in the country are organized exclusively on the provincial level.
Perhaps only a country that produced the painter Magritte, the fictional detective Maigret, and the comic strip hero Tintin, not to mention the Smurfs (Schtroumpfs in the original) could find itself in such a situation. But of course it is more complicated than that.
In the background is the joint platform on which Leterme’s CDV was elected together with the NVA, forming what is called a “cartel” in Belgian politics. The cartel’s platform seeks to give Flanders additional powers in fields such as employment, social and economic policy and taxes. The NVA advocates the independence of Flanders and is the cartel’s driving ideological force.
French-speaking parties therefore anticipate, the devil being in the details, that the legislation’s fine print would provide a constitutional basis for a subsequent division of Belgium into two juridically independent states, Flanders and Wallonia. Such legislation, which Leterme promised to his own parliamentary party members, would require a two-thirds majority of the whole parliament, which he cannot muster. No French-speaking party will give him the simple parliamentary majority necessary to conduct regular government business.
Yet if the slow-cooking crisis of the Belgian state has begun to bubble, this is only because the fires stoked by present-day globalization have re-ignited the embers of globalizations past. The territories occupied by today’s Belgium and today’s Netherlands had been a single country in the fifteenth century until the Spanish Hapsburg armies reconquered the Southern Netherlands (today’s north of Belgium)
By the eighteenth century, a divergence had grown between the mainly Protestant and Dutch-speaking north, which developed a mercantile and trans-oceanic economy, and the mostly French-speaking south, where an industrial economy had developed around coal and steel, thanks to the internationalization of European capital, except in the heavily Catholic lands that later became Belgian Flanders, where peasant-based agriculture dominated. The political origins of the Flemish movement are traced back to the opposition by Catholic priests in Flanders to French occupation during the Revolution, in the early 1790s.
The Northern and Southern Netherlands were reunited after the fall of Napoleon. However, Belgium was created in 1830 in the wake of the July Revolution in Paris, when radicals in Liege (an independent principality until 1795 while the rest of the Low Countries was ruled by the Habsburgs from Vienna) pushed existing demands for a separate Southern administration to demands for full independence. In reply, the Concert of Europe stripped from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, created only fifteen years earlier, most of the territory of today’s Belgium, including much of Dutch Limburg, and annexed to it the mainly French-speaking western territories of the erstwhile Luxemburg.
But that solved only the territorial issue. The British insistence upon control of the English Channel could be compromised with continuing French demands for revolutionary democracy and economic liberalism only by the 1832 royal Belgian marriage of Leopold I, a member of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (former name of the House of Windsor), to the eldest daughter of King Louis-Phillippe of the French, whom the July Revolution in Paris had brought to power.
The new state’s name was created from Julius Caesar’s collective designation (Belgicae) of a group of mutually distinct Gallic tribes. The nobility of historical Flanders were French-speaking and, indeed, the territory itself belonged to the Frankish kings. Even both parents of De Gaulle, whose name is a Francization of the Flemish “van de Walle,” came from prominent families in Lille, i.e., in French Flanders.
Belgium had only one significant Flemish-language university prior to the Second World War, established in Ghent by the Germans during military occupation in the course of the First World War. Prominent exponents of the Flemish cause at the time came from a liberal intellectual elite educated in French and claiming to be the spiritual heirs of the intelligentsia expelled from the Southern Netherlands during the 1576 Sack of Antwerp by troops of the Spanish Habsburgs.
That three-day pyromaniacal rampage, which came to be known as the Spanish Fury, destroyed the most important West European center for trade (thanks to woolens and cloth) and finance (thanks to the seaport) of its time, a city that was the incubator of the progressive civilization that produced the painter Brueghel, the printer Plantijn, the scientist Mercator, the humanist Lipsius (second in rank only after Erasmus), and still in the seventeenth century was able to produce Rubens and van Dyck.
Only two decades after the end of the Second World War were children from Flemish-speaking peasants from the countryside in the north of Belgium—a class that was long refused advancement and excluded from the rest of society, thus infused with an internalized sense of moral stigma—able to enter (mostly Catholic) institutions of higher education in numbers. Present-day Flemish separatism is their product. The unitary state’s destruction is their success.
Constitutional reforms throughout the 1970s and 1980s created three geographic-regional and also three linguistic-communitarian (including German-speaking) governments. Further constitutional reforms in 1993 created a federal state. Belgium has continued to function throughout the current political crisis, which has lasted over a year, thanks only to so great a devolution of authority as already achieved.
The city of Brussels (population just over 1 million), which is the third constitutional region of federal Belgium in addition to Flemish-speaking Flanders (6.2 million) and French-speaking Wallonia (3.3 million), is the only part of the country where both languages are official. The transformation of Brussels into the semi-official capital of Europe, itself a local product of postmodern globalization, equally transformed its surrounding areas. Its own electoral ballots list French-speaking and Flemish-speaking parties for elections.
Because the Halle-Vilvoorde district has a special geographical relationship with Brussels city, its ballots also list French-speaking candidates. What was declared illegal was for the same candidates to appear on ballots both in Brussels and in Halle-Vilvoorde, which nevertheless together constitute a unified electoral district under law. The current existential crisis of the Belgian state is thus a complication of the metropolitanization of Brussels, which led to the formation of the BHV electoral district even though Halle-Vilvoorde is in Flanders.
Several solutions have been suggested but none has yet been adopted. The most evident solution would be to split the BHV electoral district between Brussels and Halle-Vilvoorde; however, this could cause more problems than it solves. According to voting simulations, such a solution might add one or two French-speaking seats from Halle-Vilvoorde to the federal parliament and eliminate Flemish-speaking representation from Brussels. However, Flemish nationalists advocating the split dispute the methods used for the calculation. It now appears that there will be no solution to the BHV issue before regional elections in 2009.
It might be supposed that somehow transgovernmentalism (cooperation across state lines at the substate level) would turn Belgium into the first truly postmodern state. Indeed, there are already cooperative structures between Belgian and Dutch Limburg based upon their historical and cultural unity. So also there is talk of a “Grand Lille,” i.e., the extension of the region around the French city of Lille into part of the Belgian province of West-Flanders at the level of intermunicipal and intercommunal cooperation, officializing an unofficial bilingual cooperation.
But partisans of Belgian Flemish independence such as the NVA would oppose that kind of linguistic devolution to lower levels of government. And although Wallonia might wish to have a special relationship with France, nevertheless Paris is hardly eager to take over the burden of its social subsidy from Brussels—which is a driving economic force for both Flanders and Wallonia, since the many Belgian citizens who work in Brussels but do not live in the city are taxed on their income according to place of residence.
For the talk about post-territoriality, in the end territory exists: even if Wallonia disintegrates under conditions of Flemish independence. Commentators write of a “praline divorce,” but this is unlikely. The Flemish movement is driven as much by economics as by ethno-linguistic separatism (and political careerism). The north of the country transfers over 5 billion Euros per year in social welfare to subsidize the south, where the once-dynamic motors of coal and steel industry have been idle for several decades.
But the loss of Brussels has been calculated to cost 1.25 billion Euros to Flanders, and 1 billion Euros to Brussels itself (which happens to be the capital of the Flanders federal region as well as of the federal Belgian state). Those sums, however, are dwarfed by the federal state’s national debt, which is close to 300 billion Euros, nearly equivalent to the country’s annual gross domestic product. In case of separation, that national debt would have to be divided.
The complications of any attempt to divide that debt between a putatively independent Flanders and a putatively independent Wallonia are unimaginable. If it seems increasingly difficult to navigate the ship even of a federal state around such an iceberg a debt, still both halves of a ship split in two will sink separately. In the end, the question in the title of this article can really be answered only with another question. To paraphrase Voltaire, “Maybe Belgium should not exist, but how is it possible to disinvent?”
Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
See reprint info if you want to reproduce anything in any medium.
For individual, non-commerical use only.
This Web-based compilation: Copyright © Robert M. Cutler
First published in ISN Security Watch, 17 September 2008.