Belgium, the end of the federal system?

May 25, 2014 – the Belgian parliamentary elections showed the victory of nationalist wave in the country. Belgium, a country in the heart of European – a project with a complex architecture, seems more than ever subjected to pressure.

Belgium was established in 1830. The French language dominated the expansion of the Flemish dialects. Wallonia was a world power during the period of the Industrial Revolution. If the Flemish language was recognized in 1898, the actual change happened in the 1960s. That is due to the industrial decline. Flanders claimed more cultural autonomy and Wallonia more economic power. In 1970, the country was split in two. This is the birth of federalism.

Since 1993, the Article 1 of the Belgian Constitution indicates that « Belgium is a federal state composed of communities and regions. » The country has three linguistic communities: the French community with a small part of German speaking area and the Flemish community. Each of them has their own language, education system, culture or the audio-visual sector. The country has also three regions: the Flemish region, the Walloon Region and the Brussels-Capital Region which is both Flemish and Walloon. Each region is independent in the economy sector, employment, energy and the transport. Both communities have a parliament and a government. In this case Belgium seems to look like a puzzle.

Belgian federalism does not respond to a territorial logic. The system is asymmetric. The hierarchy of legal norms does not exist. In the European Union, we point out exclusive competence such as the monetary policy or shared competences such as the transport or environment. But in Belgium the principle is the exclusive competence as a whole. We have these kinds of competences in the federal states, but it is an absolute rule in Belgium. That is to say, the federal government has no right of guardianship, or coercion of law on communities and regions. This is an equipollence standard, a strict equivalence between national standards and the federal entities.

On the other hand, the influence of political power is difficult. The collapse of government after the fall of the Leterme coalition in April 2010 showed at that time worrying the signals. Today, the change of government in May of this year allowed The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) to establish itself as the dominant force together with liberal Reformist Movement (MR), Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open-VLD) and Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V). Currently, the right-wing government is the result of a completely new coalition of three parties. The Socialists were removed from power for the first time in a quarter century.

The actual impasse reveals the limits of the multiculturalism in the country’s business model. The choice of unilingual in the early twentieth century sealed the lack of perspective of assimilation of the two communities. The gradual disappearance of the national parties, the weakening of dialogue and coexistence of two public opinions bring a sense of cultural isolation. The collective interest is no longer embodied in the state-Belgian.

However, these considerations must be qualified. Belgium is institutionally unstable, although the country posses many assets such as the citizens’ support and the incarnation of Brussels, the heart of the European Union.

The proportion of Flemish who is opting for an independent state does not exceed 15%. Even with the crisis, this figure does not move. As a whole, the Belgians cultivate a living together and not confrontational. Brussels is a symbol of a successful cultural and linguistic diversity.

All Flemish parties since 1999 request an extension of fiscal autonomy and solidarity. In today’s Belgium Flanders has 5.5% unemployment and Walloon 11.2%. The sixth state reform in 2010 allowed a degree of unprecedented autonomy, but no specific modification of the Belgian federal structure. The output of federalism is impossible. How to adjust the distribution of government debt, federal buildings, the status of minorities? The public debt is high, who will pay? How much? Will that be the role of Brussels (20% of Gross Domestic Product)? Both Wallonia and Flanders claim Brussels. So many questions are appearing and so many problems to resolve.
The solution would be a Confederation system. But this free state of association is unlikely to emerge. Social security, defense, foreign affairs are not sustainable by federated entities. The simplest transfers have already been made. On the contrary, should be a renewal of the federal system by correcting deficiencies, by the emergence of the Brussels region as an independent political actor and by the introduction of a real debate at the federal level. Politicians must suggest proposals to build cohesion and national solidarity by maintaining policies of solidarity between regions and work on mechanisms to restore a community of interest between the north and the south.
Belgium must be accountable. It has a great status and a successful multiculturalism. If political parties are not able to measure this issue, civil society will take over. In a moment of democratic crisis in Europe, Belgium can embody the renewal of its institutional architecture through the voice of its citizens.

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