Belgium no longer exists

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 19, 2008

… at least, that was what Bart De Wever, the leader of the small Flemish nationalist party, said in “an interview in La Libre Belgique”: He doesn’t deny that when Belgium was founded, in 1830, it corresponded to what the francophone elite wanted. But these days, he argues, the media are divided, the culture is divided, public opinion is divided. There is no longer a unified society.

Whether or not that is true, the latest news is that Yves Leterme managed to reach an agreement on a new government yesterday. But what a government, and what an agreement! The coalition includes the three major parties (liberals, social democrats, and Christian democrats) and is asymmetrical, since the francophone social democrats are taking part, whereas the Flemish social democrats are not. This is highly notable, since until now federal governments have, to the best of my knowledge, never been asymmetrical in this way. But more worrisome, the agreement they reached is regarded by commentators from across the spectrum as extremely vague and weak. There are no details on the budget, yet there is an agreement on taxcuts (a demand from the liberals) and on an increase of the social benefits (a demand from the social-democrats), in addition to a commitment not to create a budget deficit. Perhaps they do believe in manna from heaven after all. Nothing is said about the Flemish demands to regionalise the social security system, employment policies and other responsibilities they wanted to transfer from the national to the regional levels. Nothing is said about how they will solve the problem with Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, without which future elections will be unconstitutional.

So no surprise that most media commentators ask: how long will this government last? De Standaard “summarizes”: the situation aptly: “No team, no programme, no budget, no leader.” And even if this government lasts longer than when the first real decision needs to be taken, what will it contribute to solving “the profound problems that are haunting this country?”:

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Club Troppo » Missing Link Daily
03.19.08 at 10:43 pm



John Emerson 03.19.08 at 2:59 pm

Belgian Family Brewers is on top of the situation:

Q.: In view of the political situation in Belgium and the possible split-up of the Belgian state, is it a good idea to create a Belgian logo?

A.: BFB is not a political organisation. What Belgian and foreign consumers value is Belgian beer. Neither Walloon beer nor Flemish beer has the aura of Belgian beer. BFB’s brewers believe in the global value of Belgian beer, and affirm their intention to defend and promote it. Even if Belgian beer ends up originating from two different states in the future…


mijnheer 03.19.08 at 3:52 pm

It would be interesting to hear Ingrid’s response to this proposed “Swiss” fix for Belgium.


Steve LaBonne 03.19.08 at 4:15 pm

John- some of my favorite “Belgian” brews come from the Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown, NY. So we beer-drinkers don’t even need actual Belgians at all! ;)


Scott Martens 03.19.08 at 5:54 pm

Belgium as a brand name. Perversely, it makes sense!

The most remarkable thing about this crisis is the total lack of impact it’s had on life in Belgium. The Flemish state continues to fund my paychecks. The trains run on time (or rather they don’t but they didn’t when there was a solid government either.) Unemployment and pension checks are still cashable. Taxes are collected. On the whole laundry list of “profound problems”, not *one* seems to be a bread and butter issue. Yes, Belgium is an institutional mess… but those institutions keep functioning. The Euro is strong, wee Belgium’s crisis has far less impact on Belgian trade and economic stability than the US mortgage crisis and collapse of the dollar.

True, Leterme seems to promise little and may have even less to offer. But as far as I can tell, this crisis is a spectator sport. Where are the street demonstrations? Why is there no air of crisis? Or riots at opera houses? (sorry, bad Belgian historical joke)

Belgium may be experiencing the world’s first post-nationalist revolution, remarkable for the apathy with which it is greeted and the near total non-impact it has on those most affected by it. Is this an oddity? Or a sign of things to come?


Rich B. 03.19.08 at 6:19 pm

If only we could have kept Kosovo from seceding . . .


John Emerson 03.19.08 at 7:17 pm

Scott, it seems to me that between American preponderance and various international organizations (EU, World Bank, NATO, UN, etc.) the small and medium-sized states play little role any more. For example, Czechoslovakia split almost without anyone noticing. So even though there’s no good reason for Belgium to split, there’s no good reason not to either. Flemish will work in Wallonia, etc., the same way they work in Holland.

Ernst Gellner “Kanguage and Solitude”, sort of a culminating work of his career) speculates about a post-national world within which all big decisions are made by international technocrats, but local cultural issues are handled by local states.


franck 03.19.08 at 7:51 pm

This seems to me like the political elite flinching in the face of the real complexities that would be brought up by splitting apart Belgium. But just because they flinched this time doesn’t mean they will keep doing it.

Every time this happens, the state gets decentralized more. Eventually people will notice that Belgium has no real institutional power or respect anymore and then the federal state will vanish, much like Czechoslovakia. (Just like in Belgium, the subsidiary units have different economic, cultural, and political goals.)


Ingrid Robeyns 03.19.08 at 8:46 pm

mijnheer, I don’t know enough about the Swiss situation to be able to comment on whether the ‘Swiss’ solution would work in Belgium. It just strikes me that the article doesn’t mention economics at all. Right now one of the major complaints by the Flemish is that the Walloon government doesn’t take responsibility for its failing economic policies and doesn’t adequately deal with a political culture of dependency – and that they are able to do so thanks to the guaranteed financial transfers from Flanders to the Walloon region. Under the Swiss model with Belgium-style fiscale solidarity, this would mean that the cantons of the NOrth would subsidise the economy of the cantons of the South. So I don’t see how this solves the issues about financial and economic responsibility that the Flemish politicians want to put on the agenda. It just moves them to another level.
Of course, the author of the article may take it that each canton would be responsible for its own socio-economic situation (i.e. by having a larger share of the fiscale system at the canton level); but that would be precisely what the Flemish politicians are now demanding.

Perhaps someone can comment on the degree of autonomy (fiscal, economic and social policies etc.) that currently exist in Switserland — that would help to see what the Swiss model applied to Belgium would really mean.


TGGP 03.19.08 at 10:13 pm

I tip my off to the secessionist Flems. I hope the United States go their separate ways as well.


Randy McDonald 03.19.08 at 10:31 pm

<iRight now one of the major complaints by the Flemish is that the Walloon government doesn’t take responsibility for its failing economic policies and doesn’t adequately deal with a political culture of dependency – and that they are able to do so thanks to the guaranteed financial transfers from Flanders to the Walloon region.

To what extent is this a misperception? At least some sources have said that Wallonia is at least holding its own if not slowly catching up to Flanders.


Jaap Weel 03.19.08 at 11:28 pm

Ingrid is probably right that the reason why Switzerland stays together so much better than Belgium is to a large extent that the Swiss (a) do not do nearly as much redistribution of income, and (b) do not do even close to nearly as much redistribution of income from one region to another. It’s not clear whether in Belgium the redistribution concerns (and it goes beyond entitlements: the South also has the bulk of public and State Owned Enterprise employment, while the North is economically much more successful) are a politically acceptable mask for the cultural/linguistic concerns or the other way around, but the two are interrelated in a way that just isn’t so relevant in Switzerland.


John Emerson 03.19.08 at 11:54 pm

One man, far ahead of his time, knew that België bestaat helemaal niet even when everyone else thought it did.


Randy McDonald 03.20.08 at 4:49 am

It’s not clear whether in Belgium the redistribution concerns [. . .] are a politically acceptable mask for the cultural/linguistic concerns or the other way around, but the two are interrelated in a way that just isn’t so relevant in Switzerland.

The dividing line is pretty stark. In Canada, there is a lot of resentment about the way in which federal income transfers redistributed from richer Ontario and Alberta end up in Québec, but these transfers form only a minority of transfers (Québec is large, but it’s quite close to the Canadian average).


chris y 03.20.08 at 9:03 am

Scott points out that taxes are collected. What would happen if a major party or a popular consensus thought it wise to change the rate of taxation?


Thomas Allen 03.20.08 at 5:51 pm

On Earth, Belgium refers to a small country. Throughout the rest of the galaxy, Belgium is the most unspeakably rude word there is.


Nick 03.21.08 at 12:35 pm

Surely if Belgium did not exist it would be necessary to invent it, so that Germany can invade it while the rest of Europe prepares for war?
Oops, sorry, wrong century . . .


GDMH 03.22.08 at 12:41 am

Chiming in from Belgium itself, firstly, I would like to thank Ingrid for clear and fair reporting on this whole sordid mess.
Secondly, the Swiss approach comes close to what I’ve been thinking, suggesting for more than twenty years. Especially socio-economically it would make lot of sense. What serious country would federalize in two (and a quarter) parts? That simply means a split.
However, the main reason a “Swiss” solution cannot really be discussed in Belgium itself is because we’ve degraded into a pure and simple particracy. All issues now concern the survival of the small private interests of political parties, none (save the extreme-right perhaps) have membership numbers they would be happy to be publicly known. We have federal elections, but it is effectively impossible to vote for federal candidates or parties because these simply don’t exist.

Cfr Scott Martens: Of course, what is critical here is that the most important reason to maintain/preserve Belgium is precisely that it was (unwittingly) originally constituted as a post-nation-state. Belgium as an historical (arte-)fact holds the promise of statehood, rule of law, sovereignty, and all that without being possibly linked to romantic and dangerous notions such as ‘nation’. And, importantly, the lucky choice for a constitutional monarchy has and still does help us in denying the populist tendencies to rule supreme.
Another ‘historical’ fact is also that the historical ‘Flemish’ comprise perhaps almost one third of Dutch speaking Belgium, and that a significant amount of ‘historically’ Flemish people (about almost a third again) are now French citizens.
So, the relevance of this whole peculiar mess is, I believe, near universal. Belgium is very small, not very important as such, but it as been offering a very important promise for a long time that beyond the current global system of nation-states there can be a legitimate, viable future for statehood which is not primarily based on romantic and dangerous fantasies of/identifications with race, sex, religion, language, you name it. It’s a small effort, but I think worth respecting.
So, many thanks Ingrid for your thoughtfulness.

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