For the past two days King Albert II of Belgium has been consulting the members of the Crown Council. He is seeking their help to solve what the Royal Palace itself calls the Belgian “political crisis.” The members of the Crown Council, the so-called “Ministers of State,” are unelected. They have been appointed by the King at his own discretion. Most of the “Ministers of State” are former politicians, though they also include representatives from the Belgian establishment.
On 10 June the Belgians went to the polls to elect a new Parliament. Instead of seeing their elected representatives dealing with the country’s political problems and putting a government together – as would be the case in democratic countries – they now see an unelected official, the King, and a group of unelected “wise” men, most of them politicians from the last century, usurp the duties of their elected representatives.
Belgium is a multinational state, the model for the European Union’s efforts to turn Europe into a single multinational state. It is made up of 60% Dutch-speaking, free-market oriented Flemings in the north and 40% French-speaking, predominantly Socialist Walloons in the south. The Flemish economic output per person is 124 percent of the EU average, and there is growing resentment that Flemish taxes are being used to subsidize the poorer French-speaking south, where economic output is 90 percent of the EU average.
Belgian governments always have to rely on a majority in both Flanders and Wallonia, since major decisions need the support of both parts of the country. In practice this means that 20% of the population (i.e. half of the Walloons) can veto every decision. In the past decades the Flemish efforts to reform and democratize Belgium have always been vetoed by Wallonia. Usually, the Flemings managed to literally buy Walloon approval by handing out more subsidies to the south. This method became unsustainable when the government money ran out. Belgium is still working off debt piled up in the 1970s and 1980s.
The present crisis began after the June 10 general elections were won in Flanders by parties who are no longer willing to subsidize Wallonia in return for larger Flemish autonomy and pro-market economic reforms. The immediate cause of the crisis is a 2003 ruling of the Belgian Constitutional Court that the present Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) electoral constituency be divided into a bilingual constituency Brussels and a Flemish constituency Halle-Vilvoorde. The Court ruled that the BHV-constituency is unconstitutional because it allows Walloon politicians to stand for elections in Flanders, while Flemish politicians are not allowed to stand in Wallonia. The Walloon politicians, however, refuse to approve the division of the BHV-constituency if the Flemings do not pay a price for it.
The resolve of the Flemings is causing the Belgian establishment to panic. Yesterday two members of the Crown Council, Wilfried Martens, a former Belgian Prime Minister (1979-1992) and the current president of the European People’s Party, and Willy Claes, the former Secretary-General of NATO (1994-1995) who had to resign his NATO position because of his involvement in a Belgian corruption scandal, appeared on Flemish public television to warn the Flemish against opting for independence. “If we still want to play a significant role in Europe, we [Flemings and Walloons] have to accept common responsibilities,” Mr Martens said. “Solidarity [read: the duty of the Flemings to subsidize Wallonia] is an essential value of the European Union. It is simply unthinkable that we should renounce that.” Another Crown Council member, Herman De Croo, recently said that “Flemish nationalists are mentally handicapped.” He later offered his apologies for this statement to... the mentally handicapped.
The last time the Belgian King summoned the Crown Council because he had lost confidence in the elected politicians was in 1960, during the crisis surrounding the independence of Belgium’s Congo colony. Apart from 1960, the Crown Council has only convened on four occasions during Belgium’s 177 years of existence: in 1870 at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, in 1914 on the occasion of the German ultimatum to Belgium, in 1919 for the Treaty of Versailles, and in 1950 at the return from exile of Albert II and his father, King Leopold III, a notorious anti-Semitic Nazi collaborator.
Sarkozy urged to annex Wallonia
Yesterday the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro published a column by Alexandre Adler in which Adler urged the French President Sarkozy to prepare for the annexation of Wallonia by France. Adler said Sarkozy should not miss this historic opportunity “to govern an enlarged France.” He referred to the example of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who in 1990 grabbed the opportunity to incorporate East Germany into the German Federal Republic. Last week a survey in the Netherlands showed 77% of the Dutch in favour of reuniting the Netherlands and Flanders.
Adler also offers an explanation for the remarkable fact that the international media (apart from the media in the Netherlands and France) are largely ignoring Belgium’s worst political crisis ever. He refers to a Russian anecdote from the final days of the Soviet Union. When a Soviet official asked a colleague why he had not come to the last meeting of the leadership, the colleague answered: “If I had known it was going to be the last meeting, I would have come.” The foreign media do not seem to realize the seriousness of the current crisis.
Another reason why the international media might not be devoting much attention to the present crisis might be because last December the Walloon television network broadcasted a fake news programme in which they announced that the Flemish regional parliament had unilaterally declared the independence of Flanders. That event was widely reported all over the world, which might give the foreign media the impression today that the Belgians are again “crying wolf.”
Finally, a third reason why the international media are failing to report on Belgium’s demise might be that they do not deem the story sexy, or rather bloody enough. The unraveling of Belgium is a slow, non-violent process. Belgium has sometimes been called “Yugoslavia in slow motion.”
In 1830 French revolutionaries, intent on annexing it to France, occupied Flanders, then a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and detached it from the Netherlands. Britain’s Lord Palmerston prevented the annexation by France but merged Flanders with French-speaking provinces in a newly created artificial state called Belgium. The latter was run by Francophones from Liège, a province that had historically never belonged to the Netherlands. The Liegeois made French the only official language in Belgium and tried to “Frenchify” the entire country, even though the majority of the population spoke Dutch. This policy succeeded in the capital Brussels and villages near the linguistic border, such as Waterloo.
Today Dutch is recognised as an official language in Belgium, but the French minority still determines how the country is run, forcing the socialist paradigms of the Walloons (i.e. Belgium’s French) on the more free-market oriented Flemings. The Flemings, though the majority in the country, have always been treated as second-class citizens. Their linguistic rights were denied for decades, politically they have been reduced to a minority position where their demographic majority is neutralized, and they are being forced to subsidize the Walloon part of the country.
In spite of all this, the Flemings have never used violence against their oppressors. The geography of Flanders, a densely populated flat country with no forests or mountains to hide, simply did not allow an armed rebellion. This has forced the Flemings into an attitude of outward compliance, whilst individuals organize their economic activities as much as possible outside the authorities’ reach. Cheating the taxman, by making deals under the counter and especially by “working on the sly,” are the preferred way of anti-Belgian rebellion. According to Prof Leo Van Hove of Brussels University, 30% of the money in circulation in Belgium is used in the underground economy. The majority of the Belgians, i.e. the Flemings, see the Belgian government as an enemy. They do so, not because (as is sometimes said by government officials), “Belgium had [my emphasis – pb] a long history of foreign occupations,” but because Flanders is still being ruled in a non-democratic way, with foreigners imposing their will on the Flemings. Will the King and his Crown Council succeed in prolonging this situation? That is the issue that is at stake today in Brussels.
A Throne in Brussels
Author: Paul Belien