The Belgian anarchy has not led to anarchy. Because Brussels is not in a hurry, Brussels is in a panic.
Belgium has been without a government for 174 days, and we are doing fine, thank you. Daily life continues as before. Everything is still functioning in Brussels and the rest of the country, even our tax collectors continue to do their job. People have come to wonder why a country needs a government. The situation of anarchy (in the original meaning of ἀναρχία anarchía, “without a government or ruler”) has not led to anarchy (political disorder).
Since the general elections of June 10th the Belgian politicians are incapable of putting together a government coalition. The previous government of Guy Verhofstadt, which no longer has a majority in Parliament, has continued in a caretaker position for the past six months.
As in all 27 member states of the European Union, three quarters of Belgium’s annual legislation emanates from the European authorities in Brussels. As everywhere, the Belgian Parliament just stamps its approval to the directives issued by the European Commission and submitted to the Parliament by the Belgian government. One result of the Belgian political crisis is that the caretaker government does not submit directives for approval to the Parliament. Hence, in its hour of ungovernability Belgium is now more sovereign than it has been in the past 50 years.
Mr. Verhofstadt, the caretaker Prime Minister, lacks the authority to bind Belgium to any new international obligations. The question has been raised whether he is allowed to sign the new European treaty on 13 December in Lisbon. According to Professor Matthias Storme, one of Belgium’s leading Constitutional lawyers (and a daily reader of this website), Mr. Verhofstadt can sign whatever he wants because his signature in itself does not bind Belgium. Only a ratification by Parliament binds the nation. As Prof. Storme sees it:
“I agree that according to tradition, the outgoing government should not sign the Treaty, but there is no legal sanction against doing so. Or rather; the only body who can sanction is Parliament (by not ratifying).” As long as there is no government, however, the treaty cannot be presented to Parliament for ratification.
Considering the above, it is no surprise that the EU authorities are putting a lot of pressure on the Belgian politicos to stop their bickering and form a government as soon as possible. If there is one thing that the Eurocrats fear it must be this: a member state which regains its sovereignty, even, as would be the case in Belgium, if this happens by default because it is unable to install a government that submits the EU directives and EU treaties to parliament for rubberstamping.
Belgium is a country with 60% Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north (Flanders) and 40% French-speaking Walloons in the south (Wallonia). The Belgian Constitution requires that 50% of the government ministers are Walloons. While free-market oriented Flanders always votes for parties of the right and socialist-dominated Wallonia for parties of the left, the government is always centrist and the Flemings have to subsidize the Walloons. Many Flemings are convinced that they would be better off without Walloon interference over policies implemented in Flanders. The Flemings demand downright independence from Belgium or, at least, the transformation of Belgium into a confederation which would grant Flanders home rule.
In Flanders, last June’s elections were lost by the Liberals and the Socialists, i.e. the parties of Mr. Verhofstadt’s coalition. They were won by an alliance of Christian-Democrats (CD&V) and Flemish-Nationalists (N-VA), which aims to transform Belgium into a confederacy, and by radical Flemish-secessionists aiming for independence. Together the confederalists and the separatists polled 56.1% of the Flemish electorate.
The huge gains of Flemish confederalists and separatists resulted from the deep frustration with the political stalemate concerning the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) electoral constituency. In a 2003 ruling the Belgian Constitutional Court ordered the Belgian government to abolish this constituency, which allows French-speaking politicians to stand for election in the Halle-Vilvoorde region, which is Flemish, while Dutch-speaking politicians are not allowed to stand for election in Wallonia. The Constitutional Court ruled that this is a discrimination of the Flemings and exhorted the government to rectify the situation by July 2007 at the latest. The governing Liberal and Socialist parties of the Verhofstadt coalition failed to do this because the Walloon parties opposed the partition of BHV into a bilingual constituency (Brussels) and a Flemish constituency (Halle-Vilvoorde). Consequently the Liberals and Socialists lost the elections in Flanders, but won in Wallonia.
Since June 10th Yves Leterme, the leader of the Flemish Christian-Democrats, has been trying to form a government with four parties, i.e. his own group of Christian-Democrats and Flemish-Nationalist Confederalists (CD&V/N-VA), the Flemish Liberals of Mr. Verhofstadt, the Walloon Christian-Democrats and the Walloon Liberals. While Mr. Leterme’s CD&V/N-VA wants a reform of the Belgian state, the Walloon parties oppose this.
Last Friday Mr. Leterme, for the sake of the country’s reputation abroad, told the Walloon parties that he was willing to tone down on his Flemish demands in order to make the formation of a government possible. Lo and behold, within a few hours he and the Walloon Christian-Democrats and Liberals had reached an agreement. This agreement, however, led to a rift within Leterme’s own group, where the Flemish Confederalists (N-VA) threatened to terminate their alliance with the Flemish Christian-Democrats (CD&V), form their own political group and join the opposition. That prospect made Mr. Leterme change his mind and again adopt a tougher pro-Flemish position. This has angered the Walloon Christian-Democrats and the Liberals.
Mr. Leterme will now have to decide whether he wants to keep his own group together or move forward and form a government with the Walloon parties anyway. Without the support of the Flemish Confederalists a Leterme government would have a majority of only one seat. Mr. Leterme’s biggest worry, however, is Flemish public opinion, which has radicalized over the past 174 days. An internet poll in yesterday’s Gazet van Antwerpen reveals that 62.9% of the Flemings reject Mr. Leterme’s agreement with the Walloons.
The radicalization of Flemish public opinion explains why new elections – the only alternative to a complete political stalemate – are dreaded by the pro-Belgian establishment. They would likely lead to further electoral gains for the Flemish secessionist and confederalist parties, making the formation of a new government even more difficult.
What is more, it may be impossible to hold new elections. Prof. Marc Bossuyt, Belgium’s new Chief Justice, a Flemish Liberal and a close friend of Mr. Verhofstadt’s, reaffirmed earlier this month that new elections in Belgium are unconstitutional as long as the BHV constituency still exists. Belgium needs a government to solve the BHV problem because as long as this problem has not been solved there cannot be new elections.
Theoretically Belgium can drag on without a government and without an agreement to abolish BHV until June 2011, when parliament has to be disbanded and new elections have to be held. One may wonder, however, if a country can afford a state of anarchy (in the original meaning: no government) for four years without ending up in a state of anarchy (in the derivative meaning: political disorder).
As always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. So far the proof has been given that a country can easily afford 6 months of anarchy without anarchy. Perhaps the Belgians can keep it up for another 42 months. Imagine: 48 months – four whole years – in which not a single European directive can be implemented in Brussels, nor a single European treaty ratified. It is no wonder that, though Brussels (in the original meaning) does not seem to be in a hurry, Brussels (the Eurocracy) is in a panic.
A Throne in Brussels: Britain, the Saxe-Coburgs and the Belgianisation of Europe
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
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
Save Belgium: Postmodernists to the Rescue, 28 September 2007
Yves Leterme Is Too Soft. Will Flanders Join EFTA? 1 October 2007
Barroso and Bilderberg to the Rescue of Belgium, 7 October 2007
Information and Disinformation about Belgium, 6 November 2007
Belgium Will Survive for Now, but Not for Long, 7 November 2007
Belgium Scuppers Constitution? Sadly Hoping Won't Make It Happen, 8 November 2007
Belgian Bond Yields Begin to Balloon, 14 November 2007
Independence for Flanders: Good for Democracy, Good for Europe, 29 November 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