Belgium sinking deeper and deeper…

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 14, 2011

I haven’t been reporting or commenting for a while on the ongoing political crisis in Belgium, which most recently started with the elections 15 months ago and the inability to form a government afterwards, but in fact genuinely started after the elections in June 2007 and the inability of the subsequent government to tackle some major socio-economic and political problems. In essence, the country has been politically unstable or incapable of effective governance for the last 4 years (In case you lost the story, here are my earlier posts on Belgian politics (starting with the oldest): “one”: “two”: “three”: “four”: “five”: “six”: “seven”: “eight”: “nine”: “ten”: “eleven”:

The last months were filled with one attempt after the other to find a coalition, all in a climate of the absence of trust between the two main linguistic groups, and also in what I’d call the ‘bad-divorce-atmosphere’. With that latter I mean that if one listens to the interpretation or explanation of a certain event by either the Flemish or the Francophones, it is just like listening to two spouses in the middle of a very ugly divorce: it is as if they live in two completely different realities. This, in fact, is probably the factor that makes me most pessimistic regarding the odds that the two linguistic groups will stay in the same country in the long run: just like a bad marriage, they no longer have enough valuable things in common, and their common past may no longer be enough to keep them together.

So now, in this mess, another event was just announced that may cause Belgium to sink even deeper: Yves Leterme, the Christian-Democratic former Prime-Minister, who has been been running the daily affairs for the last 15 months waiting to be succeeded by the new PM, has announced that he is moving to the office of the OECD.
Together with his team, he has been taking care of daily affairs in Belgium, in very difficult economic times, and I believe the general judgement is that he did so quite well, especially given the difficult circumstances.

I see two possible scenarios. Either his exit is the pressure that breaks the bowl, the negotiations which are not going anywhere stop, and we go for new elections or yet another new set of parties negotiation (but haven’t we had almost all possible combinations by now?). Or the negotiating parties understand how precarious the situation now is, and this gives them a reason to find the compromise that they have had such a hard time finding over the last 15 months. Either way, the departure of Leterme is a shock to the political class, and we’ll have to see in the mid-long term whether it will turn out a good thing or not. In the short term, it definitely is only adding another problem on the existing heap of problems.



John Quiggin 09.14.11 at 10:07 am

This is a depressing story. One thing I don’t really understand is the source of Belgian national identity, and the extent to which it still has a substantial hold, as against identification with a linguistic community. Wikipedia suggests that the 1830 revolution was basically Francophone-led (with religion as a further issue). That doesn’t seem like a promising basis for national unity, but 1830 was a long time ago.

Sort-of related question. Is there any desire on either side of the divide to join the bigger neighbor with the same language? Any prospect at all that the neighbor would be interested?

Finally, given the increased viability of small states within the EU, what are the chances of a three-way split, with Brussels having its own mini-state, similar in some ways to DC in the US?


Ingrid Robeyns 09.14.11 at 10:57 am

John, from what I know (but I am definitely not an expert on Belgian history!), until the middle of the last century Flemish was seen as a language spoken by peasants and unskilled workers; so there is a serious class issue too. In fact, it was the case, and perhaps to some extent still is the case, that Flemish historical elite spoke French. So the linguistic divide is also fused with what where historically-based class issues – but in the present-day society these ‘classes’ look very differently…

As far as I can tell, there is no desire at all among Flemish people to join the Netherlands. While speaking (roughly) the same language, Dutch culture is much more calvinistic and ‘Nordic’ then the Flemish culture. It’s often said that the cultural north-south divide in Europe runs through Belgium, and then Flanders is the most southern Nothern part of Belgium (culturally). Moreover, the Flemish would feel way too proud to join the Dutch.

The scenario you sketch is theoretically possible. I think right now anything is possible (except Civil War, which I don’t think is a realistic scenario). It is in any case true that many inhabitants from Brussels feel neither Flemish or Walloon, but will say ‘Je suis Bruxellois’ or ‘Ik ben Brusselaar’ (or possibly the same sentence in one of the dozens languages spoken in that territory, above all Arabic and Berber, I guess). So the situation is very complex – and that for only ten million people…


Nababov 09.14.11 at 11:07 am

So 15 months without a government? Who knew the libertarian utopia would be Belgium?


Scott Martens 09.14.11 at 11:43 am

Belgium’s lack of government has one huge advantage in the current crisis: No one can pass austerity measures. Having no government may be the best option for Belgium right now, not because the underlying issues are intractable (although they are both intractable and, IMO, lame) but because no one can pressure a non-existent government to reduce deficits.


Nababov 09.14.11 at 11:47 am

Good point Scott. Right now I think the whole planet could use more lateral thinking like that.


Christiaan 09.14.11 at 11:51 am

On the other hand, the story really is not as depressing as it may seem from this story. The federal government in Belgium is just one branch, the regional governments are pretty powerful and fully functional. In fact, the situation may even be positive, believe it or not. Currently Europe is completely obsessed with the totally destructive ideology of austerity, and this does a lot of damage to the European economic recovery. The fact that the Belgian federal government cannot make important budget decisions has the effect that Belgium can not follow this bad example, something I am sure they would otherwise do. As a result, growth in Belgium is relatively good, especially if you take into account it’s debt situation.


ThomasT 09.14.11 at 11:57 am

Well, of course they have a government. The same government in fact that governs any modern western country: the permanent bureaucracy. It’s not as if Yves Leterme, or any other politician for that matter, would in any real sense “run things”.
If anything, Belgium is a very nice demonstration of how useless elections have become at least since the end of WWII. Well, aside from their function as a pretty cheap internal security measure. For that they are still pretty neat.


soru 09.14.11 at 11:58 am

I was under the impression Belgium was doing comparatively well in economic terms, simply because the absence of government means the absence of deliberate austerity measures.


ThomasT 09.14.11 at 12:22 pm

The lack of austerity measures illustrates my point as well. It’s not that they don’t have a government, it’s just that the goverment they do have, i.e. the bureaucracy, is obviously not at all interested in public austerity measures. Politicians on the other hand, as the last vestiges of democracy, have to ponder to the not so enlightened populace. This process that you guys abhor so much (and I wholeheartedly agree with that btw.) is also known as populism.
What we see in Belgium is just the European Union on a small scale. A Democracy on paper that, for one reason or another, has done away with anything democratic.
I for one applaud both of them for that. I’m pleased to see you do too.


Barry 09.14.11 at 12:59 pm

Please note that the ‘absence of government’ here doesn’t mean ‘absence of government’; it means that certain policy-making functions are on hold. I’m guessing here, of course; Ingrid would have told us if the actual bureaucracy had shut down, and people were driving on both sides of the road :)


Hektor Bim 09.14.11 at 1:09 pm

Scott Martens has the right of it. As long as the caretaker government is in power, it can’t do anything stupid under pressure from the EU or other national governments. Of course, it also can’t pass stimulus measures either, so that means it just muddles along while Belgium continues to have a staggering debt ratio.

I’m curious what people are saying in Brussels, because Brussels is the sticking point in any divorce. Wallonia wants to annex it as French-speaking, but some of the city and many of the suburbs are Flemish-speaking, so it would be difficult for Flanders to let it go.

It also seems that if Belgium breaks up, the East Cantons have a cast-iron justification for rejoining Germany. I can’t tell if that is popular or not there, though.

Is there any appetite for the population to elect more conciliatory parties? The last election produced parties that were very far apart.


c_h 09.14.11 at 1:21 pm

Several comments have pointed out that Belgium is doing relatively well due to the PRESENCE of regional government (which to my understanding has important economic policy making powers concerning infrastructure, education, social policy…) and the ABSENCE of a government authorised to implement austerity measures. The PARALYSIS of one level turns out to be a good thing. Now I’d be interested who is responsible for the authorisation of any Euro stabilisation or emergency measure? Not the regions certainly. But can the acting federal government really authorise wide-ranging measures? Or has this conflict the potential to paralyse Europe?


Red 09.14.11 at 1:35 pm

I’ll second Scott and Christiaan. In response to Hektor: don’t forget that political parties are regionally based, i.e. Flemish can only vote for Flemish parties, Walloons for Walloon parties, etc. (like everything else in Belgium, it’s more complicated than that, but never mind: essentially correct). The more ‘conciliatory parties’ are the ones now conducting negotiations, and they are failing, which can only strengthen the more extremist parties, obviously.


Hans Plettinx 09.14.11 at 1:36 pm

(Warning: I’m Flemish):

I don’t think there is an appetite to elect more conciliatory parties, basically because that doesn’t really matter anymore (at least on flemish side). In 2007, people massively voted for M. Leterme (the current caretaker prime minister who just announced his resignation), because he promised a change in the relation with Wallonia, solve some long-standing linguistic issues and promised more powers to the regional level. M. leterme failed to deliver, so the voting population massively switched to the N-VA, which more credibly promised a lot more powers to the regions (and is aiming for independence in the long run). It’s a question of raising the negotiation bar, ‘upping the ante’ if you wish, in order to get a reasonable deal out of it.

Most polls confirm that people don’t follow N-VA all the way, and are not necessarily voting for that party because they want independence – they just want the next step in the evolution to a (full) confederal state. I fear that if the current negiotiations fail, the N-Va will go with a full independence story to the vote (we’re beyond further attempts, only an election can follow), with many people following them as they have observed that trying to talk doesn’t work – therefore again upping the ante.

With that in mind, no other party can win. Flemish voters clearly want a chance, and other parties can’t ignore that call. They can state they want to keep negotiating and talking and taking responsability, etc…, but that is exactly what has been going on since 2007 – with no results. N-VA is in a complete win-win: either negotiations stall/collapse and they can go with the ‘I told you so line’ – or the negotations end up with some ugly results, and then they run with ‘is that all you could do’?

And Flanders will not join Netherlands – indeed a question of pride. Wallonian appetite to join France is higher – but still a minority. If they would end up alone (i.e. without Brussels) then i see it as a real possibility, but with brussels they’ll simply be the new Belgium (or the old Belgium minus Flanders).


c_h 09.14.11 at 2:01 pm

@Hektor Bim
It also seems that if Belgium breaks up, the East Cantons have a cast-iron justification for rejoining Germany.

Obviously, the German speaking Belgians are the last ‘real Belgians’ as they have no place to go. If you follow their media discourse it seems that their identity is based for a non-neglible part on their being ‘not German’ notwithstanding consuming German media etc – a big difference to eg. South Tyrol’s attachment to Austria. An association with Luxembourg would be more attractive. Yet apparently, Luxembourg has already said no to a potential territorial enlargement. Moreover, I doubt that Germany could be happy with an extension of its borders especially in the current political environment in Europe.


geo 09.14.11 at 2:45 pm

On the other hand:

Quarterly GDP data don’t, on the whole, tend to make the person studying them laugh out loud. The most recent set, however, are an exception, despite the fact that the general picture is of unrelieved and spreading economic gloom. Instead of the surge of rebounding growth which historically accompanies successful exit from a recession, we have the UK’s disappointing 0.2 per cent growth, the US’s anaemic 0.3 per cent and the glum eurozone average figure of 0.2 per cent. That number includes the surprising and alarming German 0.1 per cent, the desperately poor French 0 per cent and then, wait for it, the agreeably frisky Belgian 0.7 per cent. Why is that, if you’ve been following the story, laugh-aloud funny? Because Belgium doesn’t have a government. Thanks to political stalemate in Brussels, it hasn’t had one for 15 months. No government means none of the stuff all the other governments are doing: no cuts and no ‘austerity’ packages. In the absence of anyone with a mandate to slash and burn, Belgian public sector spending is puttering along much as it always was; hence the continuing growth of their economy. It turns out that from the economic point of view, in the current crisis, no government is better than any government – any existing government.


Z 09.14.11 at 3:04 pm

As a friendly neighbour, I concur with the sentiment already expressed several times. I’m guessing a fair majority of French, and probably a fair majority of Europeans, would gladly exchange their current government with the Belgium situation if that was a possible option.

Sort-of related question. Is there any desire on either side of the divide to join the bigger neighbor with the same language? Any prospect at all that the neighbor would be interested?

In case of a break-up, and if asked, France would certainly agree to take the French-speaking part, out of its well-known propension to think the Universe is secretly dreaming about becoming part of France, but I have never heard the slightest indication that Walloons were even remotely interested. Coincidentally, and that may be a sign I am listening too much to one spouse, it seems to me that Flemish speakers tend to be more in favour of separation, and French speakers in favour of union.


Andre Mayer 09.14.11 at 3:22 pm

For Belgium, it seems to me, being a monarchy is disadvantageous. The monarch may be, to some (varying) extent, a symbol of national unity; but the lack of a nationally elected chief executive in what is basically a federal system means that there is little reason for regional parties to work together in electoral politics – with serious implications for parliamentary politics. And of course the national election produces a government, or part of one – obvious though it may be that no one can win the next presidential elections in France and the US, someone will.


David 09.14.11 at 3:42 pm

I remember there was one poll a couple of years ago where a majority of walloons said they’d favor joining France if Belgium broke up.


Helder De Schutter 09.14.11 at 4:11 pm

Ingrid, thanks for your great posts on this issue. I have one comment to make on the marriage/divorce metaphor you used. I have argued against the use of the metaphor of the marriage in describing the relationship between the Flemish and the Francophones (within Belgium the relationship is usually described as one between the Flemish and the Walloons, which is more problematic, I think). Here is why:

1. The metaphor is somewhat unfair towards the Francophones, who don’t tend to see themselves as belonging to a separate national-cultural entity: Francophones typically understand themselves as citizens of the country-wide nation, quite similar to the Anglophones in Canada and the Spanish speakers in Spain.

2. The metaphor doesn’t work for the inhabitants of the officially bilingual region of Brussels, which doesn’t demand its inhabitants to choose between an identification as Flemish or Francophone/Walloon.

3. It definitely does not work for the German speakers of Belgium, who form Belgium’s third official language community (sometimes described as the best protected language minority in the world).

4. Belgium did not originate as a marriage or a union between two partners. Several federal states have originated as one; Belgium hasn’t. (This in itself is not a dramatic problem for the metaphor: relations could have changed by time).

5. But the most important reason to reject the marriage metaphor is that it denies internal Flemish heterogeneity over national identity. Studies into the national identity feelings of the Flemish show invariably that Flanders is characterized by identity pluralism, also found in language groups in other multilingual federal states. A minority of Flemish claim a purely Flemish and non-Belgian national identity. Another minority claims a purely Belgian and non-Flemish identity. But the biggest group indicates to have a ‘dual national identity’: both Belgian and Flemish at the same time. So there is not one national identity in Flanders. The least we can conclude is that there are two national identities within Flanders: a Flemish and a Belgian nationality. Many find they belong to both groups, a minority only counts itself among the first and another (somewhat smaller) minority sees itself as a member of only the Belgian nation.

I believe this implies that Belgium is not adequately described as a marriage or a union between the two main linguistic groups. The metaphor fits better within a confederal than within a federal logic, and has as effect that we start to see Belgium as a confederal entity (I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong, but its important to see that the effect of metaphors like these is that they think away Flemish heterogeneity). It is no coincidence then that the metaphor is most popular among those Flemish politicians closer to the secessionist camps. And indeed, the metaphor makes divorce into an evident mental conclusion, more evident then it is on the ground.

I’ve argued this in an op-ed in Dutch and French. The French 2008 version is still available from Le Soir:


salazar 09.14.11 at 4:29 pm

I’m with c_h @15. In fact, I even heard stories that the elected head of the German Community wants to turn the East Cantons into a region. Hardly a sign of wanting to join Germany and losing your distinctiveness.


Scott Martens 09.14.11 at 5:47 pm

“2. The metaphor doesn’t work for the inhabitants of the officially bilingual region of Brussels, which doesn’t demand its inhabitants to choose between an identification as Flemish or Francophone/Walloon.”

Worse still, it won’t let them. After 1.5 years in Flanders, then 5 years in Brussels, I could not convince the government to send me forms in French rather than Dutch.


Speculoos 09.14.11 at 6:03 pm

This from a Belgian exile: the ‘bad divorce’ analogy is particularly apt, with Wallonia the spouse who has been arguing against the break-up, and making concessions, since Flanders started making moves towards the exit, back in the late 60’s. Also, for several decades, staring in the same late 60’s, the country invested in trying to shore up and save its heavy industry, which was one of its major sources of wealth, and located in the French speaking region. That turned out to be a fool’s errand, but Flanders, which had little industry to speak of, used matching funds to develop itself.
It is also true that there is some century-old social issues mixed in with the linguistic ones: all the way to the1930’s, both regions (not just Flanders), spoke local dialects, either French-related, or Dutch-related, and the elites spoke French.
In addition, the cause of Flemish separatists has been greatly harmed by its close association with the far-right. Much of the animosity between the two regions is fed by the barely spoken memory that they made different choices with respect to Nazi Germany in the 1940’s.


Student 09.14.11 at 6:13 pm

Several years ago I took a semester-long course at an English-speaking Institute in Flanders, in which the majority of the students were Flemish doctors, the rest were from other European states, and a number of the teachers were Belgian francophones. The Belgian students were overall extremely quiet, in very notable contrast to the three Dutch participants, who individually each produced far more argument than the entire Flemish contingent (and both Dutch and Flemish seemed to dislike each other, but that’s another story entirely) — but I was really struck by the extreme rudeness of the Flemish students towards the francophone lecturers. Upon hearing one woman who spoke a single opening sentence with a strong French accent, the Belgians all turned to each other and made exaggerated faces of horror and hilarity; they talked loudly through the French lecturers’ presentations, and showed none of the respect that they had for other teachers. As someone who’s taught before and sympathizes with the difficulty of holding an audience under good circumstances, I found it upsetting.

Each module would get student reviews — the one that I participated in was developed and led by a profoundly interesting Francophone specialist. The only comment that the Flemish students had was that it would be helpful if someone could train him to speak English so that it would be bearable to listen to. There was a single Walloon student in the course, and she never spoke to any of the Flemish students during breaks; the only time she asked questions was when French teachers were being ignored by Flemish students.

I mentioned all of this to an older Flemish professional who was in the course. “The younger generation is very radical,” he told me. My own impression was of a group of people that couldn’t bear to be around French speakers, or bothered to hide their feelings. On the other hand, several of these students that I thought so rude told me that if Belgium actually did separate, they would leave in disgust. Only one of them told me once that “It’s funny that the party that gets the most votes never gets to govern,” which in context I believe was an indirect way of saying she wished the radical Flemish party wasn’t frozen out (at the time).


Guido Nius 09.14.11 at 6:25 pm

Say what you will about Belgians, we may not be able to run our own institutions but we do tend to be overrepresented in running international institutions.

Other trivia: Belgium may well have invented austerity measures back in the late 80’s, Y. Leterme personally revived Flemish nationalism and the specific file that has put us in a gridlock for the past 4 years (counting the previous government as non-government) and there is a lot to say for the argument that we do well because there cannot in our model be any other solution than a centrist compromise solution.


DCA 09.14.11 at 6:51 pm

Just a note on the “century-old social issues”: in 1925 my mother (American, aged 8) moved to Antwerp with her parents, and was sent to the local school: to find that in the classroom there was one new language to learn (French) and on the playground another (Flemish). So it is pretty clear what was then the “elite” tongue.


Guido Nius 09.14.11 at 9:23 pm

The issue that prompted Ingrid’s post seems to have been resolved after 40 years of discussing it. You might have to put up with Belgium for some time more.


Homer Simpson 09.15.11 at 1:45 am

“Stupid Flanders!”


Scott Martens 09.15.11 at 7:23 am

The biggest single sticking point appears to have been resolved last night. The Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde riding is to be partitioned along the lines demanded by the Flemings, but most of the large francophone minority will be able to choose to vote as if they lived in Brussels. Some other minor administrative issues – like being forced to ask for documents in French each time the government sends you a piece of paper – are to be resolved as well. Access to French language courts is also guaranteed, I think for the first time. The problem of naming mayors in bilingual communes is also resolved, I gather.

I don’t see exactly how this will work demographically. Will Brussels’ electoral representation is determined by the population of Brussels, or by the population of Brussels plus the number of people in the rest of BHV that elect to vote in the Brussels riding? The first effectively disenfranchises francophone voters.

The abolition of elected Senators is an interesting touch, it’s a little weird that it was easier to agree to that than to agree on how to elect Senators from BHV.


AlanDownunder 09.16.11 at 7:03 am

Flanders to Holland, Wallonia to France and Belgium to the dustbin of history? Why not?


PaulB 09.16.11 at 8:01 am

Perhaps Brussels should become an independent city-state, capital of the EU.

On the economic point: I think it uncontroversial that, in the absence of supply constraints, you can increase growth in the short term by running a larger deficit. That doesn’t necessarily make it foolish to concern oneself with the medium-term consequences of deficits.


salazar 09.16.11 at 1:34 pm

PaulB @16: AFAIK, Brussels is like the Jerusalem of the Belgian political crisis. Flemish nationalists wouldn’t want to let it go — and Flanders has installed its regional and community institutions there to symbolize its claim to Brussels, even though the city, technically, forms a separate region. And of course, I’ve talked to Francophone Belgians who have no intention of conceding Brussels to the other side.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.18.11 at 8:06 pm

Helder, you are absolutely right about what you say regarding people’s identities. But I am not sure this is as relevant as you seem to think it is. In the end it is politicians who make decisions on whether to form a new government, or not, and how much further to compartmentalize the country, or not. It may well be that many people feel they belong to (or identify) with several ethno-linguistic groups and thus have plural identities (which I take to be the case), but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that the analyses and understanding of the problems by most politicians on both sides of the border is radically different.
Three summers ago, I spent my holidays in the Ardennes, and read each day newspapers from both sides of the linguistic border. And really, the discrepancy was chilling and scary. If politicians (who rule the country) and journalists (who interpret and report upon political activities) give such different analyses of the socio-economic and political state of Belgium, then the ‘estranged spouses’ analyses becomes much more apt then if one were to apply this metaphor to the population groups. I am sure there are also wide differences within the group of Flemish reps. Francophone politicians, but what if those intra-group differences among the politicians are much smaller than the intra-group differences in the flemish reps. francophone population groups?

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