113 days after the general elections of June 10th, Belgium still has no government. On Saturday evening, King Albert II reappointed Yves Leterme, the leader of the Flemish Christian-Democrat Party and the winner of last June’s elections, as “formateur” (Prime Minister Designate). The formateur has to put together a new cabinet. Leterme had already been formateur until August 23rd, but he was unable to forge an agreement between parties from Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking north, and Wallonia, the country’s French-speaking south.
Following Mr. Leterme’s previous failure, the King asked “royal scout” Herman Van Rompuy, a senior politician and a member of the Crown Council, to defuse the situation. It took Mr. Van Rompuy a month to get the parties to negotiate again. The Flemings, who are nett contributors to the generous Belgian welfare system, want a reform of this system, while the Walloons, who are nett beneficiaries, veto any reform.
Another point of disagreement is the split of the electoral constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV). In 2003, Belgium’s Constitutional Court ruled that this constituency was unconstitutional because it allows Walloon parties to stand for election in parts of Flanders while Flemish parties are not allowed to stand for election anywhere in Wallonia. The Court told the Belgian politicians to remedy this situation by 2007, either by no longer allowing Walloon parties to stand in Flanders, or by allowing Flemish parties to stand in Wallonia. However, the Walloon parties do not want to alter the present – unconstitutional – situation unless Flanders pays a heavy price for it.
Mr. Leterme is currently under tremendous pressure to succeed in his task. He realizes that if he fails again it is unlikely that the King will give him a third chance to become Prime Minister. Mr. Leterme, who belongs to the trade union wing of his own party, is also under pressure from the very powerful Christian-Democrat trade union which opposes the splitting up of Belgium’s welfare system along linguistic lines. The trade union backs the “Save the Solidarity” petition launched last week by leftist intellectuals and artists. The aim of the petition is to keep Flanders paying for Wallonia’s welfare benefits.
In the past Walloon politicians have threatened that if the welfare system is split this will be the end of Belgium. For Wallonia Belgium’s only raison d’etre is that Wallonia can benefit from Flanders’ labour. Though the Flemings make up 60 per cent of the Belgians Walloon politicians have frequently threatened that if the Flemings use their democratic majority, e.g. to reform welfare or split BHV, it will be the end of Belgium.
In an interview in Het Laatste Nieuws, Flanders’ (and Belgium’s) largest newspaper, on 26 Feb. 2005, Elio Di Rupo, the leader of the Walloon Socialists, was asked “What will happen if the Flemings use their majority in Parliament?” He answered: “That would be the end of Belgium.” The journalist objected: “That would be democratic rule, a majority in Parliament.” Whereupon Mr. Di Rupo said: “Then democracy will be the end of Belgium.”
Although the Walloon media depict Mr. Leterme as a Flemish hardliner, he is in fact a moderate. Mr. Leterme, the son of a Walloon father and a Flemish mother, is one of the few Belgians with family ties in both parts of the country. He does not deny that Belgium is an artificial construct, but does his best to keep the country together. This explains why the Flemish Christian-Democrats postponed the BHV debate in Parliament last week and why they refuse to consider the option of a Flemish secession. By depicting Mr. Leterme as a Flemish extremist Walloon politicians are trying to intimidate him into submitting to their demands. The strategy seems to work. There are persistent rumours that Mr. Leterme is currently aiming to form a government with the Walloons by offering to postpone the debate about welfare reform and the BHV question until after the 2009 regional elections. Mr. Leterme could make history by becoming the first president of an independent Flanders, but chooses to be the last Prime Minister of Belgium.
Meanwhile, the Belgian press is trying to frighten the growing group of Flemings who favour the establishment of an independent Flemish Republic. Last Saturday, Het Laatste Nieuws wrote that if Flanders secedes from Belgium, it will no longer be a member state of the European Union and will have to reapply for EU membership. This process would take several years, with all the other member states having to approve the country’s membership before it could (re)join. Wallonia, on the other hand, being the remnant of Belgium, would remain an EU member and, hence, would have the power to veto Flanders’ (re)accession to the EU.
This is most unlikely, not only because Flanders belongs to the Eurozone, but primarily because Flanders is a nett contributor to the EU, while Wallonia is a nett beneficiary. It would be nonsense for the Brussels EUrocrats to oust the Flemings and the money they bring in, while keeping the costly Walloons.
Three years ago, however, Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, warned that if Scotland (which, like Wallonia, is a nett beneficiary of EU subsidies) breaks away from the United Kingdom Edinburgh would have to reapply for membership of the European Union (EU). “A newly-independent region would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the (European) Union and the treaties would not apply any more in its territory,” Mr. Prodi said.
If a Flemish secession from Belgium were to lead to Flanders losing its EU membership, the Flemish Republic would probably prefer to join Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
If this happens it might also be an inspiration for English Eurosceptics. To get rid of EU membership, England should secede from the United Kingdom, instead of Scotland. England could then join Flanders and the other prosperous free-market nations in EFTA.
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
Could Sarkozy Solve Belgium’s Crisis? 3 September 2007
Even Flemish Muslims Want to Separate from the Walloons, 6 September 2007
Crisis in Belgium: If Flanders Secedes Wallonia Disintegrates, 9 September 2007
After Belgium: Europe’s New Map, 13 September 2007
Thrembling Thrones in Brussels, 18 September 2007
Save Belgium: Postmodernists to the Rescue, 28 September 2007
Background articles explaining Belgium:
A City Without Water Is A City Without A Soul, 28 June 2005
How Flanders Helped Shape Freedom in America, 11 July 2005
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