At the dawn of 2020, Brexit threatened to destabilise Europe’s socioeconomic welfare. The intervening year both resolved some of those threats and introduced new ones. One such challenge lies in Belgium’s multiple linguistic and cultural identities. As the EU’s unofficial capital, Brussels has become the battleground of the Union’s efforts to keep the peace and advance economic prosperity.
When the pandemic hit, only nine months had passed since the formation of a new federal government. The new administration’s infancy produced further instability during a crisis that was for want of none. To that end, in late-2020 Michael Peel wrote…
Regional rivalries had already forced the country to tackle the pandemic under an improvised and time-limited government, because of deadlock in talks to form a new administration after elections last year. The new coalition took power only on October 1, after nearly 500 days of wrangling.
Belgium’s constitutional monarchy is home to three official languages and communities: Flemish/Dutch speaking (64%), Walloon/French speaking (35%), and Ostbelgien/German speaking (1%). Despite its small size, Belgium has a relatively complex federal political structure with five separate parliaments at three regional levels: the linguistic communities, the Walloon region, and Brussels.
Internally, the current social service delivery mechanism authorises these Regions to administer their own development initiatives: from employment, energy, land use, and healthcare, to compensation for pandemic-induced income loss. The Federal state exclusively controls issues such as immigration and foreign policies. Evidently enough, areas of shared competency demand critical care.
Linguistic divisions culminated in a cultural division. Under that regulatory division, even theatres are separated according to communities within Brussels. The divide is also economic, as Flanders today has the upper hand with not just its trading ports, but also its biotech, medical, and service industries.
Belgium’s linguistic divisions have a provenance in the nineteenth century. Formal safeguards against those divisions originate in the Law of Equality (1898) between the Netherlands and France. State cynicism toward bilingualism casts a long shadow. During World War I, German authorities that aimed at a permanent dissolution of Belgium, again divided it into two administrative blocks: Flanders with Brussels and Wallonia with Namur as capitals.
Once Congo was decolonised in 1960, the relationship between Belgium’s administrative blocks fell into disrepair. That same year, Belgium passed a law that shifted from the national party system to regional parties catering to the Flemish and Walloon separately. Today, only the two-party system in Brussels can overlap. Even then, parties speak exclusively French or Flemish.
Linguistic divisions have sharp political consequences. From 2010-2011, it took a record-breaking 584 days to form a coalition government. A similar reminder, the 2019 elections demonstrated that as the Green wave spread through Brussels, Socialists took over Wallonia, and the far-right separatist group Vlaams Belang emerged victorious in Flanders.
The chasm has developed yet further during time of exceptional crisis. While the spread of Covid19 drove the urgency for effective measures at the national level, the caretaker government’s lockdown regulations violated the Conseil d’État’s theory of shared responsibility in matters of crisis management.
Milan Kundera’s article L’Occident Kidnappé discussed the fate of a small country that continually doubts its identity and undermines its survival. So too, in Brussels, division would mean a loss from which neither region would recover. In the extreme case, division might even lead to a situation in which the three regions would unite with their respective language counterparts, i.e., the Netherlands, France and Germany.
Nationalistic politics of survival and revival consumed the post-war period. Nowadays, the 21st century cries out for a shift towards the global perspective. With pressing crises of governance like Covid-19, climate change, mass migration, and income disparities, there is no alternative to inclusive cooperation to safeguard Belgium’s future.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.