The Belgians are currently living in a state without government. Are they to be pitied? Not at all. Since there is no government they are not being governed – which is great.
Belgium’s coalition of Liberals and Socialists, led by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, lost its parliamentary majority in last June’s elections. Until there is a new government the Verhofstadt cabinet continues to function in a caretaker position. This severely limits its powers. Verhofstadt is not allowed to start up new initiatives nor to bind Belgium internationally to new obligations. This implies that Belgium is not allowed to sign the revised European Union Reform Treaty (the revised EU constitution).
There is no doubt, however, that if Verhofstadt signs anyway no-one in Belgium will object. Belgians are generally indifferent about competences being transferred from one end of Brussels Wetstraat, where the office of the Belgian government is situated in number 16, to the other end, where the European Commission resides in number 200. In 1992 a Belgian caretaker cabinet headed by Wilfried Martens signed the Maastricht Treaty and no-one bothered about that either, although Martens did not have the authority to bind Belgium to the treaty.
In my book A Throne in Brussels I explain why the rule of law does not exist in Belgium, a state established by the international powers in 1830-31, with a population of 60% Dutch-speaking Flemings and 40% French-speaking Walloons. One of the characteristics of artificial states are that they have no rule of law and that, as soon as one attempts to introduce this principle, they fall apart (cfr. the collapse of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia). In Belgium the Constitution exists to be twisted whenever political necessities require so. That, by the way, is also the immediate cause of the present crisis between Flanders and Wallonia.
In 2003 Belgium’s Constitutional Court ruled that the bilingual electoral constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) had to be divided into two electoral constituencies: bilingual Brussels on the one hand, and Dutch-speaking Halle-Vilvoorde (HV) on the other hand. Halle and Vilvoorde are Dutch-speaking towns which administratively belong to the province of Flemish Brabant. Apart from Brussels, a bilingual enclave surrounded by Flanders, Belgium consists of unilingual regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. Outside Brussels, French-speaking politicians can only stand for election in Wallonia and not in Flanders, while Dutch-speaking politicians can only stand for election in Flanders, not in Wallonia.
The BHV-constituency violates the constitution because it allows French-speaking politicians to stand for election in parts of Flanders, while Flemish politicians are not allowed to stand for election in Wallonia. Belgium’s Constitutional Court gave the Verhofstadt cabinet four years to divide BHV. Verhofstadt failed to do this because the Walloon parties of his coalition vetoed the measure. Following last June’s elections, in which the Flemish electorate gave Verhofstadt’s Liberals and his Socialist partners a severe beating, the Flemish parties refuse to join a coalition that does not agree to split BHV. In Wallonia, however, where the Liberals won the elections, all parties refuse to join a coalition that divides BHV without the Flemings paying a heavy price for it. This has led to the current situation where it is impossible to form a government. The Belgian King Albert II cannot even call the Belgians to the ballot box again because new elections are unconstitutional as long as BHV has not been split.
Yesterday 80,000 Flemings participated in a huge demonstration. On foot, on their bikes or on roller skates they travelled along the 100 km border that separates Brussels from Flanders, i.e. the HV district. The Belgian politicians, however, are not in hurry to solve the present crisis which, since Belgium’s currency is the euro, is not affecting the economy. Theoretically the crisis can last until 2011 when new general elections are due. No-one, however, expects that it will last longer than 2009, when there are regional elections. If these are again won by the Flemish secessionists this might persuade the Flemish Parliament to declare Flemish independence. At the moment the Flemish Parliament does not seem to be in a hurry to take such a step. For the time being everyone seems quite content to live in a country with a powerless government where important issues are decided by the EU authorities anyway.
This brings us to the international response to the Belgian crisis. At present the Belgian crisis has been protracting for 85 days, but what if the situation has not been solved by the end of the year? Last Saturday Geert Van Hout, a Flemish blogger, described a possible scenario for a solution. His story is fictitious, but Van Hout thinks it is not unimaginable. Here it is:
Late October 2007. The Belgian politicians have still not been able to form a government. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy addresses the French nation in a television speech. “During the past decades the economic, political, cultural divide between Flemings and Walloons in our neighbouring country Belgium has grown,” he says. “Today the rift seems to have become too deep. There is no longer any cohesion between Flanders and Wallonia. While Flanders belongs to the richest regions in Europe, Wallonia is one of Europe’s poorest.” Sarkozy explains that Flanders is too small to solve Wallonia’s economic problems on its own. Moreover, the present Belgian structures have made Wallonia unwilling to introduce the necessary economic reforms. “France cannot look on passively while Belgium gradually falls apart. This is a painful process for Belgium as well as Europe, whilst the final result is unpredictable. We have to face the facts: Belgium no longer has a future.”
Then Sarkozy directly addresses the Walloons: “Dear friends, I ask you to take your future into your own hands and to join France. La France vous recevra à bras ouverts! France welcomes you. For the French it is a cultural enrichment to have you with us. France has the means and the will to do everything that is necessary to support your economic revival and to lead you towards a prosperous future, within the French nation and within Europe.”
Sarkozy gives his vision on a post-Belgian Europe. “Flanders and the German-speaking part of Belgium are free to decide about their own future.” Flanders will become independent, while the German-speaking municipalities in the eastern part of Belgium can decide about their future in a referendum. [Wallonia currently has a number of German-speaking towns. In the event of a break-up of Belgium it is likely that they will be reunited with Germany, from which Belgium annexed them in 1919.] For Brussels, “historically a Flemish, but today a predominantly French-speaking and simultaneously a European and cosmopolitan city,” Sarkozy envisions a new status as European Capital District. “This will allow Brussels to become a truly quadrilingual capital of a united Europe. Naturally the EU will provide Brussels with the necessary funds.”
Van Hout does not think his scenario to be farfetched. On 25 August, in the Parisian conservative pro-Sarkozy newspaper Le Figaro, Alexandre Adler urged the French government “to revise the dogma of French diplomacy that Flanders has to remain part of Belgium.” Britain, which established Belgium in 1830-31 to prevent France from extending its northern border, already gave up its traditional dogmas in 1945 when on 14 July (Bastille Day) Lord Harvey from the Foreign Office wrote to Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British ambassador in Brussels, that the British reaction to a possible break-up of Belgium would “depend on a large variety of factors, and in particular on whether the break-up came as a result of bare-faced aggression on the part of the French, or as the culmination of a genuine separatist movement in Wallonia or through some combination of the two. Whichever way it came it would be rash to assume that our interests would oblige us to intervene with British troops either to prevent the Walloons from seceding or to engage in a conflict with the French.”
Though a majority of the population of the Netherlands seems to favour reuniting Flanders and the Netherlands, Peter Hendriks of the Dutch business weekly FEM wrote last week that such a reunion would be an “extremely costly” operation for the Netherlands. Belgium has a government debt of 92% of its GDP. Though the debt was caused mostly by Wallonia, Flanders will probably have to pay 60% of it, since 60% of the Belgians are Flemings. According to FEM, reuniting Flanders with the Netherlands would result in the Dutch government debt rising from 56 to 70% of GDP. Moreover, unlike the Netherlands, Belgium failed to put money aside for the future pensions of its civil servants. Walloon politicians always vetoed such measures because 40% of the Walloon active population are civil servants (25% in Flanders, 13% in the Netherlands) and the Belgian economy could not bear the cost of providing for their pensions. Hence, it has been passed on to the future generations. Hendriks warns that if the Dutch state has to help provide for the pensions of Flemish civil servants the Netherlands will be forced to borrow heavily.
According to Frank Vanhecke, the leader of the Flemish-secessionist Vlaams Belang party, however, Flanders currently subsidizes Wallonia with 13 billion euros per year (according to the Belgian authorities the figure is only 6 to 10 billion euros per year). If Flanders sets aside the money to pay its future pension liabilities it can avoid a pension crisis in the next decades.
Meanwhile Pierre-Dominique Schmidt, the Belgian ambassador in Paris, who was forced to resign his post last week following allegations of corruption, denies all charges. The lawyers of Ambassador Schmidt, a Walloon Socialist and a homosexual, say that their client is the victim of “homophobic and political intrigues.”
A Throne in Brussels
Author: Paul Belien
On the current crisis in Belgium, see also:
McKinsey CEO Calls for End of Belgium, Resigns, 13 December 2005
King Warns for Dissolution of Belgium, 1 February 2006
The Influence of the Immigrant Vote on Belgian Politics, 26 June 2007
EU: The Model is Collapsing. Brussels Calls upon King for Help, 18 August 2007
After Belgium: Will Flanders and the Netherlands Reunite? 23 August 2007
Even Flemish Muslims Want to Separate from the Walloons, 6 September 2007
If Flanders Secedes Wallonia Disintegrates, 9 September 2007
Background articles explaining Belgium:
The Dark Roots of the EU, 5 December 2005
Nations Under Construction: Defining Artificial States, 13 June 2006
Why Is the Vlaams Belang So Popular? 13 February 2007
Belgium, the EU’s Destiny. The End of Nothingness, 25 August 2007
Why Belgium Is an Artificial State. And the United Kingdom, Switzerland (and Even Austria-Hungary) Are Not, 27 August 2007