Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Political Crisis in Belgium

BelgiumI mentioned the other day that Belgium has gone for five months without being able to form a new government, and is in the throes of one of the greatest political crises in its history. The primary issue is the aspiration of Flanders to break away from Wallonia, the French-speaking portion of Belgium, and form its own country. The Walloons are resisting Flemish efforts, even resorting to extra-constitutional means to maintain the status quo.

Our Flemish correspondent ProFlandria sent us this note last night:

Things are happening so fast I have a hard time keeping up, but I hope I can pass on the most important news without losing the essence of the situation.

For latecomers to this development who may not have had a chance to discover the gist of the dispute regarding the Flemish vote on Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, it boils down to this (I’ll paraphrase one of the Vlaams Belang commentaries on the media reactions): Flanders is being accused of “imperialism” because its representatives voted for a measure which is supported by the Belgian constitution, by a decision from the Constitutional Court, and by Flemish public opinion. I have to add that the other “proof” of “aggression” is that Flanders used its majority to unilaterally vote the issue. However, this would not have been necessary had the Walloon representatives, who are sworn to uphold the constitution, agreed to enforce the Constitutional Court’s decision without pushing for trade-offs in the first place.


As I have already noted, the media reaction to the vote on splitting BHV has been mostly negative. I have culled these from a post on VB’s website without checking the actual sources because I’m pressed for time, but I’m confident these are accurate based on prior experience with VB’s material.

Flemish reactions vary:

Luc Van der Kelen (Het Laatste Nieuws) 7 November [is] “the day the Flanders has manifested itself as an imperialist power.”

Paul Geudens (Gazet van Antwerpen): “The Flemish have nothing to reproach themselves for,” and he warns for a [possible] trick: “The Flemish parties will have to take care not walk into the trap set for them […], which is to form an administration with a purely social-economic platform.”

Peter Vandermeersch (De Standaard): “Creating an “emergency government” exclusively for social-economic issues while excluding any regional context, is to deny the reality of this country.” [reaction to the initiative of Leterme and the King]

In the meantime, the Francophone press is a seething cauldron of outrage…
- - - - - - - - -
Michel Konen (La Libre Belgique): “Flanders has used […] its absolute numerical majority — including the fascist extreme right Vlaams Belang — to demonstrate to the Francophones that the period of negotiation has passed. […] Flanders has abused its power. Suspicion becomes the norm!”

Béatrice Delvaux (Le Soir): “The Diktat of the Flemish majority has emerged through a clear alliance between the democratic Flemish parties and the Flemish extremists, [which is] a flagrant and intentional breach of the cordon sanitaire.” [“cordon sanitaire’ refers to the agreement by all other parties to not form a coalition with VB] She also says that “This act of aggression is completely repugnant”.

The role of VB in recent developments does not get much attention in Flemish media, with the exception of the magazine “Metro”: “The VB’ers have finally been rewarded for their multi-year attack on the Belgian construct.” And according to a political analyst with RTBF [Francophone state TV), Flanders would never have dared to advance its regional demands and the BHV split.


In response to the joint initiative by Leterme and the King (to proceed with forming a new government without authority to act on regional issues) VB is launching an emergency petition addressed to the two Flemish parties who voted to split BHV. The petition points out why the initiative is unacceptable (it includes the phrase “royal coup”), and reminds them that they got elected on the strength of their election promises which included the “immediate” split of the BHV election region without trading concessions, the enactment of substantial State reform, and the solemn assurance that they would not participate in a Federal government if their demands were not met. For those readers who enjoy reading Dutch, here’s the petition (pdf format):

On the VB website Frank Vanhecke has posted an article in his column “Gezond Verstand” (“common sense”). It describes the reason for the petition:

“Keep your word!

09.11.2007 — During the last few weeks Vlaams Belang has continued to act as the Flemish-national opposition […] by sharply criticizing the Flemish negotiators for never bringing the most pressing regional issues (which were also their most fundamental election promises) to the negotiating table. […]

Today, however, we find ourselves in a peculiar situation. The vote […] on the splitting of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde, the hysterical reactions of the Francophone parties and the Belgian establishment once again […] demonstrate that Belgium can barely function as a normal democracy. The Flemish were even accused of “imperialism” — similar to Poland being accused of aggression in September 1939. Belgium is no longer capable of functioning democratically because the Flemish can not even take legal measures to protect their own territory without the Walloon minority making them unenforceable. Furthermore, we now have the initiative of “the king” who plays a starring role comparable to President of Pakistan Musharraf’s: if democracy doesn’t work, simply suspend it. The assigning of regional issues to a working group of “wise men” is a pathetic magician’s trick by an institution [the monarchy] that has never been concerned with the legitimate interests of the Flemish majority.

It is, to put it mildly, unusual for a Flemish party to organize a petition addressed to the chairmen of two rival parties. However, our current situation is equally unusual. It is a very serious matter for the Royal House to incite the Flemish parties to repudiate their election promises. This leaves only two possibilities: either the whole situation has been orchestrated with the collusion of CD and V/N-VA which would make us witnesses to a repugnant piece of political theatre, or at least some of the Flemish negotiators are still acting in good faith in which case Flemish pressure must be increased to strengthen their resolve in opposition [a little creative translation, but the spirit of the text remains intact]. The Flemish demands touch on prosperity, employment, social security [in the very broad sense], and the future. They are not the demands of egoists, but of persons who are concerned for their people.

The demands of this emergency petition are therefore reasonable, but also clear: no participation in a [Federal] government as long as the Francophone parties maintain their blocking mechanisms against splitting BHV, and no participation in government without first enacting substantial and clear State reforms. The demands in our petition are surprisingly compatible [light sarcastic note!] with CD&V/N-VA’s election promises. The motto “Keep Your Word” applies to them as well.”

Frank Vanhecke

Later last night ProFlandria sent this follow-up:

I should have known — Brussels Journal has a great article which recaps the underlying issue in a nutshell. Especially interesting is this excerpt which addresses the short-term future of BHV and Leterme’s ongoing non-government:

It will take months before the BHV issue will be put to the vote in the plenary parliament. The Belgian Constitution contains a provision which stipulates that a majority decision taken by the Flemish majority against the French-speaking minority can be objected to by the latter on the grounds that its “vital interests” have been violated. Tonight the leaders of all the French-speaking parties convened and invoked the “violation of vital interests” clause. The procedure requires that now a 60 day “cooling” period is observed. Another result is that the Belgian Parliament can only settle the issue with a two-third majority and a majority within each language group. This makes it virtually impossible to split BHV against the will of the Walloon minority. In the meantime, […] a decision in the plenary parliament [will have to be postponed] for several months — perhaps even until after the regional elections in June 2009. Consequently Mr. Leterme will be able to govern until June 2009, when the political deadlock will resume.

We’re nowhere close to being out of the woods… While I understand that pushing Flemish interests through the existing Belgian construct is the legal way of doing things, I fear that the system is robust enough that it will never allow even a degree of meaningful independence. A formal, unilateral declaration of independence will likely be the only recourse.

ProFlandria will be sending us more updates as the situation develops. In the meantime, for the most comprehensive coverage of the latest from Belgium, consult the Brussels Journal.


Kafir Canada said...

Looks like a case of some people being used to getting what they want all the time. That is, someone is spoiled.

That Flanders has changed the status quo, Wallonia rightfully shocked. But, unfortunately for the Francophones, the general principles of justice prevent them from rightfully moving passed being shocked to actually opposing this change of the status quo. A tragedy really, just not a very sad one.

Anonymous said...

What makes me so itchy on this issue is... suddenly... the king pops up and tries to do something. That's exactly why I am against kings and emperors. An elected president, yes, he could try and solve this. But a king, who's only justification of existance is, that one of his ancestors was ruthless enough to grasp the power, should have NO influence or position in a democratic country.

Theo Spark said...

Belgium is a basket case. It will be interesting to see what happens to the EU and NATO headquarters when they have a new landlord. Many here think they should be moved anyway.

X said...

Takekaze, a monarchy is perfectly compatible with a democratic state as long as the monarchy is understood to be accountable to the rule of law. The situation in the UK is that nobody, nobody is above the law, not even the royal family - as demonstrated by the fact that not even the Princess Royal can get out of a speeding ticket... It's equally possible for a supposedly democratic system to produce undemocratic outcomes. The problem in Belgium is not the presence of a monarchy but the lack of a system of checks and balances.

Even the most perfect system can be corrupted beyond use. The UK is a good demonstration of that, too.

Henrik R Clausen said...

"What makes me so itchy on this issue is... suddenly... the king pops up and tries to do something."

"Even the most perfect system can be corrupted beyond use."

Well... The bad news is: Belgium never had a perfect system. Nor anything close. Nor anything resembling it. It is partly run by three large, institutionalized labour unions who don't care much if there's a government or not.

The king's role... Leopold I was bad, Leopold II an abomination. Both their kings and the state of democracy has improved since then, but it's still a weirdo system to the max. Even though elections are held, I don't consider Belgium to have a really mature democracy.

Seriously. The Walloons are spoiled by having formal and/or real-life veto power against any changes, and they use it. The Flemish are pissed, which is why they increasingly opt for independence.

The EU won't just sit back and let that happen. Barosso has already meddled into the issue - something he probably doesn't have the slightest right to do in the first place.

What I imagine that EU could do is to purchase Brussels as its capital. EU has money, which Brussels does not. It's not a Flemish city any longer, marred by dirt, lifeless statues and extreme consequences of immigration.

Of course it has never been the intention of the EU to actually purchase a city. But rules have been bent before, so why not?

The problems of Belgium are manyfold. Many consider them beyond repair. Anyone interested can read Belien's book "A Throne in Brussels", which describes in detail how it came to the current state.

It ain't pretty.

Conservative Swede said...

Calling Flanders "imperialistic" is indeed newspeak... no, it's far beyond newspeak.

Jungle Jim said...

'Michel Konen (La Libre Belgique): “Flanders has used […] its absolute numerical majority — including the fascist extreme right Vlaams Belang..."'

The left both in Europe and here in America have redefined the word 'fascist'. Now it means someone who favors democracy and free enterprise.

Henrik R Clausen said...

It seems that Belgium's neighbours to the south, as well as to the north, are quite fine with a reunion of the respective provinces.

Here's a fresh story in EUobserver.