one hundred and fifty days after

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 7, 2007

Today is 150 days after the Belgian elections, and there is still no government. The crisis is as deep as it was when I last “wrote about it”: There have been partial agreements between the negotiating parties over the last weeks, but for none of the crucial issues there is an agreement yet – the situation of the Francophone population in the Flemish border communes around Brussels, a solution to the crisis in the election district Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, some aspects of the welfare state reform, and the government budget.

And it is a crucial day: the Commission Internal Affairs of the National Parliament (where the Flemish make up the majority) has a meeting today, and the Flemish parties have threatened that if there is no (for them acceptable) compromise (or at least the beginning of a compromise) on Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde in the coalition negotiations, they will use their majority position to vote for the splitting of this election district. Such a Flemish-Francophone majority-minority decision would be unheard off for Belgian political norms, since it would basically imply that the Flemish majority imposes its will on the Francophone minority. All political commentators argue that this would only deepen the political crisis.

I haven’t been following each and every detail of Belgian politics in the last two months – even for a Belgian it is rather complicated, and the constant political incidents and provocations (from both sides), which have continued even after the negotiations have been resumed, are making me tired and slightly depressed. Readers who had more time and energy to follow the debate are very welcome to expand below. In the meantime we’ll be waiting to see what happens on this crucial day – the Commission Internal Affairs meets in 4 hours and 55 minutes, and so far there is no sight on any solution for Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde in the coalition negotiations.

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stostosto 11.07.07 at 10:15 am

Once again, thanks for the update on the Belgian situation, Ingrid. I don’t get them anywhere else, and I had been sort of wondering how things are going down there — though not sufficiently so to actively look up information.


MFB 11.07.07 at 10:38 am

I don’t want to seem overly frivolous, but isn’t it possible to see this as an example of how highly civilised countries can actually do without governments for long periods without disaster?

If my country didn’t have a government for more than a week, we’d probably slide into the Indian Ocean.


Jeroen 11.07.07 at 11:16 am

The Belgian situation raises a couple of questions concerning democracy.

First, what future does the ‘consensus model of democracy’ have? Belgium, being one of the examples of the consensus model (together with Switzerland and the EU) in Arend Lijphart’s “Patterns of Democracy”, seems to break with the consensus model if the vote in the Commission of Internal Affairs will turn out to be Flemish against Francophone.

Second, the mayors of the communities of the Brussels Region and the 6 communities with ‘facilities for francophones’ around Brussels (but part of the Flemish region) suggest to organize referenda in the 6 communities on whether they will join the Brussels Region or stay in the Flemish region. Can such referenda be organized on the level of communities? Or do they have to be organized on the level of the Flemish and Brussels Region (including all stakeholders)?


Scott Martens 11.07.07 at 12:42 pm

The reason Belgium hasn’t fallen into the North Sea is that the community and regional governments hold most of the day to day authority. And the Canadian argument that if Belgium can be split up, why can’t Flanders (which would neatly deal with the Brussels border communes) seems not to impress many Belgians.

I’ve pretty much given up on my adopted country. They were the ones foolish enough to give me a permanent resident’s visa, so I don’t think I have any responsibility to uphold a country that it’s residents can only barely stand. Besides, my paychecks come from the Flemish government, not the federal one.


Wouter 11.07.07 at 12:43 pm

mfb >
The point with Belgium is of course that there are some five more (regional) governments (for Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) within the country that are functioning properly – so that explains in part why the lack of a national government doesn’t cause too much harm for the time being. Apart from that, the majority of legislation stems from the EU anyway. So there are plenty of governing bodies around to keep the Belgians happy. ;)


Alex 11.07.07 at 1:32 pm

Perhaps they should give up? Clearly, having a national government is just a source of pointless aggro; everyone associates Belgium with bureaucracy anyway, so that would be no great problem. Just let the civil service and the local governments run everything.

There is a model; Austria-Hungary from 1867 to 1918 had two state-like entities owing loyalty to the same king and a tiny federal government. Perhaps the Belgians could cut the federal government right down to the PM and foreign minister?


Wouter 11.07.07 at 2:22 pm

Update: the Commission Internal Affairs voted on the splitting of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde and approved it. (But that’s not quite the end of the story yet (nor of Belgium), I suppose).


stostosto 11.07.07 at 2:24 pm

Austria-Hungary from 1867 to 1918 had two state-like entities owing loyalty to the same king and a tiny federal government.

And look how that ended…


nu 11.07.07 at 2:26 pm


Since federal taxation and redistribution is at the center of the debate/problem, that wouldn’t be a compromise.


Ingrid Robeyns 11.07.07 at 2:35 pm

Addition to the Update: The Francophone members left the Commission meeting before the vote was taken, so basically the Flemish imposed their will on the Francophone (the Flemish political parties think they were legitimized in doing this since the whole problem has been dragging on for too long, and since they were provoked by the radical francophone party). Not sure what will happen next – but it seems highly unlikely that the (already extremely difficult) coalition negotiations can now just continue as if nothing has happened. That doesn’t necessarily imply that the negotiations will be aborted completely, but it doesn’t make the conversations and negotiations between the two communities any easier, that’s for sure.


Hidari 11.07.07 at 2:49 pm

Proponents of the ‘one state’ solution please take note.*

*If this completely derails this comments thread and provokes yet another aimless yet nasty discussion of the Israel-Palestine situation I apologise. But it does seem to me that proponents of the one state solution are simply not living in the real world, and what is happening to Belgium (and what happened to the Czech Republic and Slovakia) would seem to prove it.


eulogist 11.07.07 at 3:23 pm

#11: the Flemish political parties think they were legitimized in doing this since the whole problem has been dragging on for too long, and since they were provoked by the radical francophone party

Those reasons, and because the Constitutional Court has ruled the current arrangement was unconstitutional. So something had to be done anyway, or it would have been impossible to hold new elections (now *that* would have been an interesting outcome of the collapse of the current talks…).

On referendums: I don’t think the Belgian constitution foresees in referendums on any level of government, meaning that a referendum would only have consultative status anyway (formally at least).

On the referendum wish of the Brussels and Brussels border region mayors: Of course such proceedings should, apart from referendums in each municipality concerned, also include referendums in both Flanders and Brussels. Re how the (French-speaking) Swiss canton Jura was created by splitting from canton Bern in 1978-79.


lemuel pitkin 11.07.07 at 4:17 pm

Tow questions:

Is there some reason this situation can’t continue indefinitely? Years, even?

Isn’t the norm in parliamentary systems that if it’s impossible to form a government, a new election is held?


Ingrid Robeyns 11.07.07 at 4:31 pm

Lemuel Pitkin – good questions. I am not sure about the first, I think in theory it could continue but after a while surely the population will demand a solution, which could be new elections or something else (it may well be that the longer this draggs on, the more the population radicalises).

The idea of new elections is alraedy been suggested. I think, though, that they would probably first try to form a coaltion around another group of parties, which would include the currently excluded social-democratic parties PS and SPA.


Chris Johnson 11.07.07 at 5:27 pm

While I certainly don’t expect to see a one-state solution in Israel & Palestine in my lifetime, let’s not draw too sweeping a conclusion from Belgium’s current problems.

Belgium’s been around since 1830. It’s had a functioning government for the vast majority of that time. It hasn’t fought a civil war. Democracy can be a messy, ugly thing, with a lot of gridlock and shouting. Citizens of a democratic state aren’t require to like each other and often don’t. We muddle along, complain about the government or our neighbors, and generally avoid killing one another.

One way or another, Israelis and Palestinians will always have issues they’ll need to make joint decisions on: water use, trade, security, environmental issues, etc. On one hand, you’ve got two states with their own militaries negotiating over sensitive issues. On the other, you’ve got two groups of politicians with their own constituencies negotiating. I think Israel and Palestine would be lucky if it were possible to trade their current horrors for Belgium’s political crisis. And if Belgium does split in two in the future, well, no political arrangement works forever. Taking that as a lesson that binational democracies don’t work is like seeing an elderly couple divorce after 50 years of marriage and saying “I knew it would never last.”

Anyway, none of this is to suggest that a one state solution is remotely plausible or likely to work, or that a federated Israel/Palestine would be as peaceful and functional as Belgium has been. I just don’t think Belgium’s latest crisis proves binational states are necessarily a bad idea – or worse than their alternatives. They have friction. All political systems do.


Hendrik 11.07.07 at 10:21 pm

Hmmm, I think the historic traditions in Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) have had sufficient precedent to let anyone at any level organise a referendum on a major political issue and do not mind any legalistic objections about presumed constitutionality in a fundamental dispute on existence.

This tradition brought in the past the
Plakkaet van Verlatinghe [Oath of Abjuration], which was already in earlier medieval traditions that the people could get rid of non-functioning rulers. Het Plakkaet served as a model for a.o. the American Declaration of Independence.

So when majors in B-H-V want to hold local referenda, on proposal by other tiers of government, discussing legality is useless. Just holding them will already create a first order political impact.


mijnheer 11.08.07 at 4:06 am

CBC television news tonight (Wed., Nov. 7) ran a long segment (15 or 20 minutes) on the Belgian crisis – everything from politics to a language war among Smurfs. This link may be out of date if you try viewing it tomorrow, but here it is:
The Belgium segment starts just before the half-way mark in the hour-long program.


Ed 11.08.07 at 5:45 am

I can think of three long term solutions for the Belgian problem:

1. As has been suggested, the Belgian federal government shrinks down to the King, PM, and a handful of ministers (such as the Foreign Minister and Defense Minister). The Austro-Hungarian arrangement actually worked fine until the federal government started a European wide war, which the federal Belgian government is unlikely to do. The main problem I see with this is deciding on the internal boundaries.

2. Belgium splits up, similar to how Czechoslovakia splits up, with the Wallon part maybe joining France. The main problems are again the internal boundaries, and there doesn’t seem to be any advantages over #1. A clean break may be psychologically necessary.

3. The opposite solution: Belgian becomes a unitary Flemish state, but the French speaking minority is guaranteed language rights (ie education and other government services in French, subsidies for French language TV, etc.). The main problem is that historically Belguim has been governed by a French speaking elite. The model here would be Quebec, where the nationalist movement was spurred by the disproportionate influence of a smaller anglophone elite.

What are the showstoppers for any of these proposals? Why the need for muddle?


Alex 11.08.07 at 11:10 am

Well, the Ausgleich of 1867 worked reasonably well. It was pretty dysfunctional by 1914, but then, its problems were as much to do with conflicts within Austria/Cisleithania, perhaps more, than they were to do with conflicts between Austria and Hungary.

Further, a big source of trouble was the elite’s unwillingness to accept that the working class had a valid claim on power, despite huge votes for the Social Democrats that cross-cut the ethnic divides.

None of these points really apply to Belgium.

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