After the new parliamentary elections in Belgium and great electoral victory in Flanders by Flamish separatist party (the New Flemish Alliance)
Владислав Б. Сотировић
which is fighting for political independence of Flanders, the Kingdom of Belgium is once again facing the long time process of governmental constutution like in 2007/2008 when only 196 days after parliamentary elections Belgium finally got a new government. Such political reality in Belgium exists due to the main historical disputes between two major ethnolinguistic groups – the French speaking Walloons at the south and Flemish/Duch speakers (Flanders) at the north (both of them are Roman-Catholics). Previous record in not having government was from 1988 – 148 days. Last time, the winner of the spring 2007 parliamentary elections – Ive Leterm – Flemish nationalist could not form a new Belgian government even after several rounds of negotiations and interventions by the King. At such a way, Belgium, as one of the central protagonists of European integration, is in the stage of real disunity and possible territorial dismemberment in the recent future.
The struugles between Walloons and Flanders (Flemish/Duch speakers are 60% of Belgium population) at linguistic, political, national and cultural levels are not novelty in Belgium as they are historically rooted from the very beginning of common political life – from 1830 when the Kingdom of Belgium was established. Belgium‘s federal structure is established on the principles of two ethnolinguistic regions (northern Flanders and southern Wallonia) and Brussels with special bilingual status (Flemish dialect of Duch language was recognized as an equall official language in 1922). Two federal units are governing one parts of their regional economies, transport, education, while the federal power has jurisdiction over foreign politics, defence, justice and social insurence. However, the Flemish winning coalition now is requiring more federal rights: higher level of taxation policy independence, regionalization of social insurence, autonomy in traffic regulations, separate car-plates, and even „constitution autonomy” (for instance, all of these requiremens Kosovar Albanians are today enjoying from June 1999). On the other hand, the Walloons are in fear that such requirements will finally end with disapearence of common state (which economic weight buttressed the industrial domination of the French-speaking Walloon south over the Flemish/Duch-speaking majority in the north, whose wealth derived from agriculture and commerce). What concerns economy, Belgium was the first industrialized continental European state (second one in geographical Europe after Great Britain).
The Belgium‘s political life historically had always the same main problem: the Flemish north is wishing more power and separation, while the French-speaking south is for preservation of Belgium as one state. Thus, for instance, after the Second World War the Belgian society was in unpleasent debate upon collaboration with the Nazi-Germans which left deep scars in Belgian political life, as the population of Wallonia accused many Flemish/Duch-speaking Belgians of symphatizing with the occupiers and even helping them for the reason of hope to get independence.
As Belgians became from 1950s emphatically European, their own national identity was under question, which has and economic background as well. Namely, the structural difficulties of heavy industry, which had been the backbone of Wallonia‘s prosperity, gradually shifted the economic advantage to the Flemish north. Flanders continued to prosper through trade and commerce, and was a favoured location for new industries owing to its ready access to the sea. Simarily to the case of North Itally (Lombardia), the reach regions of Flanders are propagating to stop to „feed” any more poor Wallon south which is arrogant towards the Flemish language and culture. For instance, the Walloons consider the Flamish language as „underdeveloped” to be used as the official university language in Belgium. Basically, one of the main Flemish political complains is of economic nature: financial capital of „developed” north is directed to „underdeveloped” south by the rulling Walloon politicians in Brussels for the matter of economic help to Wallonia. For the Flanders that is economic exploitation by the Walloons as Flemish north is much more participating in the central budget than lesser developed Wallonia (the same complains of economic nature started Yugoslav crisis when at the end of 1980s Slovenia and Croatia advocated policy of non-supporting any more underdeveloped Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro). The most fervent critics of current financial policy on relations Flanders-Wallonia are the big Flemish capital owners and managers who in 2005 openly advocated division of the country as Flanders is overburdened by taxation in the favor of Wallonia. Such Belgian financial politics, originally introduced to form and maintain state unity and Belgian nation, was later implemented within the framework of European Community/Union. In addition to this pure economic problem, the Walloon politicians are accused by their Flemish colleagues for deliberate settlement of Francophone immigrants to Brussels in order to „Francophonize” this once upon a time biggest Flemish city.
The growing economic, social, and emotional gulf between the two ethnolinguistic parts led to political instability, firstly heightened in the 1970s and secondly today. In addition to the emergence of a number of regional parties, the Flemish and Walloon sections of the main parties (the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, and the Liberals) split to form separate regional parties.
In en effort to address its growing divisions, the country was built into a federal state in three stages (1980, 1988, and 1993). By 1993, there were parliaments for the Walloon region, the Flemish region, and the bilingual city of Brussels (three parliaments – one state!). The federal regions were given authority over around 40% of public expenditure for matters in their purview (education, culture, health, economic and labor policy). In these areas, Flanders and Wallonia are also empowered to conclude international treaties (similarly with „Muslim-Croat Federation” and „Serbian Republic” in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Further powers to the regions in matters of agriculture, transport, and foreign aid were granted in 2001. The contrast between the Flemish part and Wallonia was exacerbated by the growth, in the Flemish part, of separatist and xenophobic parties from the mid-1990s, most notably the Vlaams Blok (Flemish bloc). Advocating Flemish independence (like northern parts of ex-Yugoslavia – Slovenia and Croatia) and racist immigration policies, it polled over 20% of the vote in Belgium‘s second city – Antwerp in 2000. In federal politics, a major political shift occured in 1999, when the Christian Democrats lost the leading role in politics which they had occupied throughout the century, owing to a series of corruption scandals. From that time, the Liberals became the biggest party bloc in the parliament.
Belgian Pandora Box
During the current political crisis in Belgium it bacame obvious that the Walloons are making all kinds of obstacles for the creation of a new functional government in Brussels what gives an argument to the Flanders to claim that basically the southern Walloons are the main „separatists”. The crisis is quite serious with unpredictable consequences for territorial integrity of Belgium, but also and what concerns the every day political activities. For instance, it is now in question could Belgium sign a new European agrrement on December 13th in Lisabon without the government. Flemish political parties, frustrated because of Wallooon obstructions, are threatening the south to unilaterally proclaim the city of Brussels as their own with Flamish/Duch language as only official. As a response, the Francophone parties proclaimed they will stop any further negotiations if the Flemish north will realize its threat concerning Brussels. It can be said that the roots of current Belgian governmental-political crisis are so historically deep that the territorial decomposition of the state is becoming more and more realistic. When Belgian Pandora Box will be open is probably only the question of time. However, Belgian Pandora Box can have quite negative consequences for further European unification as in the case of its decomposition Belgian experiment of multiethnolinguistic integration is going to be definitelly put to the archives. In this case, Belgium as „laboratory of European integration” (deffinition given by one Belgian Prime Minister) would have a great influence to numerous European separatist movements and to the remapping of European political reality. For instance, according to one public research, 54% of interviewed French citizens expressed wish to incorporate Wallonia into France in the case of Belgian dismemberment. The boomerang of „selfdetermination rights” sent to ethnolinguistic nations of ex-Yugoslavia and Soviet Union from Brussels at the beginning of the 1990s is via Kosovo today returning back to Brussels with 87% of Flemish/Duch speakers from Belgium supporting separation and with 77% of their linguistic-historic cross-border compatriots from the Netherlands wishing to include Flanders into the „mortherland” as historic region of the Netherlands (till 1830). At such a way, the supraethnolinguistic „Belgian” nation could experience the same destiny of its „Yugoslav” counterpart, however, with a lesser chances to finish its existence by civil war and ethnic cleansing. Finally, indication that Belgian „laboratory of European integration” is collapsing have been and dramatic appeals in 2007/2008 to the Belgians by their King Albert II to preserve national unity as „anachronic and catastrophic separatism” could „erode international role of Brussels” (and deprived him from the throne in the case of constitution of two republics in stead of one Kingdom).
Владислав Б. Сотировић
Vladislav B. Sotirovic