Filed Under Polemics & Politics on January 26, 2011 at 10:14 pm
I’m annoyed today. Very annoyed. I think we’re witnessing the demise of the country which I am proud to be a citizen of – Belgium. There’s no doubt that it is, and always has been, a strange place. It was a purely made up country that had nothing on common apart from a shared Catholic faith, and the newly appointed king. I don’t know of any other country where there is no common national language. The struggles between the Wallonians and the Flemish has been long and complicated. Despite being a physically tiny nation, Belgium has become a Federal State, with a national federal government in Brussels, and local ‘state’ governments in Brussels, Flanders, and Wallonia. The local governments are all working just fine, they have administrations in place, and are getting on with the job of running their respective parts of the country. The problem lies with the national federal government. We have had a string of unstable governments for years now, often with very long gaps between elections and the eventual formation of short-lived and turbulent administrations. When the previous government collapsed last spring, elections were called and held in June. Since then, there have been on-going negotiations to form a government, and they have not gone smoothly. Today, for what feels like the millionth time, talks collapsed, and the King’s mediator has handed his resignation to the King. If you’re wondering why there have to be negotiations, the reason is that there are no nation-wide parties in the Belgium. There are Flemish parties and Wallonian parties, and although there is a Flemish Green Party and a Wallonian one, they are not the same party, and don’t work together. The constitution sets this division in stone mandating that governments consist of coalitions of Flemish and Wallonian parties.
Why have all Belgian governments been so unstable of the last few years? And why can’t we get a new government formed at the moment? The answer is just three letters long, BHV. What is BHV? It’s an electoral constituency, and it’s a relic of the pre-federal Belgium. In the past Belgium was a simple nation state like Ireland or France or most other countries in the world. This meant that there was no recognition of the separateness of the Wallonian or Flemish people, so electoral boundaries did not have to obey cultural boundaries, and indeed, there were no formal boundaries between the Flemish speaking areas and the French speaking areas. Since then a formal line has been drawn on the map which divides the country into French speaking Wallonia, Flemish speaking Flanders, and bi-lingual Brussels. The three sub-states within Belgium were given a large amount of autonomy, and electoral boundaries were re-drawn to respect the new organisation of things. Well – most of them were. All of them in fact, except BHV. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, the Wallonians held up the re-drawing of this constituency which straddles both Flanders and the officially-bi-lingual-but-actually-almost-entirely-French Brussels. It should be broken into two, a Flemish bit, and Brussels.
The controversy over BHV not respecting the federalised boundaries has dragged on for decades, but it really heated up a few years ago when voters from the smaller Flemish part of the constituency took a court case on the grounds that they were being denied their constitutionally protected right to democratic representation, because the majority-French Brussels is so much bigger than the Flemish Vilvoorde (the V in BHV), that Flemish candidates could never win. The case went to Belgium’s highest court for constitutional matters, which ruled that BHV, as it stands, is indeed unconstitutional. The people living in the Flemish parts of the constituency are indeed being denied their right to democratic representation. The court ruled that BHV would need to be split before the next elections were held, and that failing to do so would make all future elections unconstitutional. Despite this strong ruling, the Wallonians refused to play ball. They demanded compromises in exchange for agreeing to follow the constitution. The Flemish felt this was outrageous (and I agree). The argument over BHV eventually killed the government before a solution could be found, so last June it was decided to hold elections anyway, to hell with what the court said! The clear victors in Flanders were the NV-A, who campaigned on a very strong platform with regards to BHV, insisting that the constitution must be upheld, and that concessions should not have to be given to entice people to follow the law!
In the 7 months since that election, no compromise has been found. The Wallonians are still a big strong ‘Non’ on splitting BHV, so of course, no government can be formed.
I honestly don’t see how a government can be formed in a nation where one party feels that the constitution is just an optional extra. At this minute in time, Wallonian contempt for Belgian national institutions has made Belgium un-governable. Either sanity is restored and the law is upheld soon, or something will have to give. I’d be very sad to see a Flemish declaration of independence, but it just might be inevitable if Flemish and Wallonian politicians can’t even share a respect for Belgium’s constitution and courts.
I really fear a unilateral Flemish declaration of independence, because I can see it ending very badly. Wallonia is broke, it needs Flanders to survive. If Flanders walks, the Wallonians will not take that lightly. What will Belgium’s national defence forces do in response? Hunt down the Flemish ‘traitors’, or splinter? Even if there is no violence, a unilateral split is going to be politically horrible, and very hard on the people of Belgium, especially those in Wallonia. I have no idea how this will end, but if a Belgian national government can’t be formed soon, something dramatic will inevitably happen. Also, if a Belgian national government is formed on the basis of the Flemish parties agreeing to ignore the constitution and keep BHV intact, there will be demonstrations on the streets in Flanders, and possibly more. I really fear seeing Belgium in the news some time soon, because it could be there for all the wrong reasons.
My Previous Posts on the Belgian/Flemish Question: