Thursday, 6 September 2007

Background: the core of the stalemate

What are the issues that have hampered the formation of a new Belgian government for now almost three months? Two disputes seem almost unsolvable.

The central issue is how much devolution Belgium can swallow without becoming itself irrelevant as a state, and where the financial responsibilities in this process of devolution lie. A smaller, but more thorny question is where the last stroke of the now 44 years old language-border between Flanders, Wallony and the bilingual city-region of Brussels should be drawn.

The core of the Belgian conflict today is a real collision of minds. The Flemish parties want the 37 years old process of devolution of the country to continue, the more, the better. Their Walloon counterparts refuse even to discuss the issue.

Differing interests are at stake. The main demand of the Flemish is that each of the three regions should become responsible for its own employment policy. By extension this could – but should not necessarily - mean that wage policy (yes, Belgium still does have a national wage policy) and unemployment benefits would also be decentralized.

With a weaker economy and an unemployment level more than twice as high as in Flanders, the leaders of both the Brussels and Walloon region (picture by Philipp Melke : the still very much decrepit former steel-and-coal city of Seraing in Wallony) refuse to debate the issue. Even an implicit promise of the Flemish christian democrat leader Yves Leterme in July that Flanders did want to leave solidarity intact – Belgium-speak for: will continue to subsidise Walloon and Brussels unemployment – could not change their minds. And inevitably this discussion raises nationalist fevers that go far beyond the original issue.

The other stumbling-block is the question of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. That is the largest electoral district of Belgium, with almost 15 % of the total population in it. It consists of both the bilingual region of Brussels and the arrondissement of Halle-Vilvoorde. The latter is officialy a Flemish administrative unit, but it has many French-speaking citizens and even a few villages where Walloon parties make up the majority in the village council.

Through the one large electoral district the French-speaking political big shots of Brussels can mobilize French-speaking voters in Halle-Vilvoorde. The Flemish parties say that in order to win these votes the Brussels politicians make promises about the possibility to continue to use French in an unrestricted way, even when one lives in the Flemish part of the country. Halle-Vilvoorde has been officially Dutch since in 1963 an administrative language-border in Belgium was created to separate villages and cities with Dutch as official language from the ones using French. But this principle is constantly undermined as French-speaking families in Brussels leave the centre of the capital by thousands to buy their own house on the cheaper grounds of the Flemish villages around the capital.

The question of dividing the electoral district remained largely unsolved through a bad compromise in 1963. And although nowadays along most of the language border there are no more conflicts between Dutch- and French-speaking citizens, there are still six villages around the Brussels region where tensions sometimes run high. Hundred years ago these six were rural Flemish villages, but today at least three of them are ruled by French-speaking maiors and aldermen.

In practice the disputes are over the languages of local schools and libraries, the number of French or Dutch tv-stations on cable-tv, the language used in ambulances and hospitals and so on. Add to this a high degree of nationalistic rethoric on both sides, that was enflamed again by a ruling of the Constitional Court in 2003 on an electoral reform law, and one understands why this local problem has become one of the most hotly debated issues in Belgium.

About none of these thorny questions even the slightest progress has been made in the 87 days of government negotiations since the elections of June the 10th. And one should keep in mind that these nationality-questions always get intermingled with ideological ones.

In that sense it became clear during the negotiatons that the Walloon liberals of the MR were less radical in their refusal to speak about devolution than the Walloon christian democrats of CDH. The former are ready to accept some restrictions on Belgiums very generous unemployment benefits, but would rather see these imposed through decisions of the federal government than through a proces of devolution.

CDH, who is more left than right and is in a coalition with the socialists in the Walloon region, does not want to speak about either of these measures. It is, in Belgian politics and certainly in center-parties like the christian democrats, not uncommon to mask an ideological choice with a strong nationalist stance. One should never dismiss the interpretation that CDH just took the hard line on the nationality-questions to avoid saying explicitly that it dislikes a coalition with the liberals.

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