Far from being in trouble, Belgium belongs, as far as economic performances are concerned, to the better part of the middle group of EU-nations. Politically it has been stable for decades, without violent conflicts and with only eleven prime ministers in the last 50 years (as much as the Netherlands). So why does it looks as if this small Western European country of 11 million citizens is at a crossroad?
Like Italy Belgium has a history of strong cities and counties, and endless wars, fought on its territory by its neighbours. When the nineteenth century came, liberals tried to break the dominance of the omnipresent catholic church. And with universal suffrage new forces appeared on the scene: socialism and nationalism. With one specific Belgian feature: in the still mainly rural north – and not unlike in Bohemia or Poland - the masses spoke a different language (Dutch) than the elite (French). So the nationalism that came out of universal suffrage was a Flemish one (Flemish is almost similar to Dutch), whereas socialism was mainly a force – and a very strong one - in the industrial regions of Wallony (see the articles ‘Old quarrel, new twist’ on this blog in September 2007).
Unlike Switzerland Belgium did not try to manage this cocktail of diversity by extreme decentralisation (the subsidiarity that EU-institutions often praise but never wholeheartedly apply). From its very independence in 1830 it was a country of political pragmatism and compromise, not the least because it was only the third fully-democratic country in the world after Britain and the United States. And when needed the ruling elite was always ready to suck the dissidents – when these became too powerful – into the system. This happened with the socialists during World War I.
It was a far more complicated affair with the Flemish nationalists, not the least because they were twice lured into collaboration by the German invader in both World Wars. Only fifty years ago a process of devolution was started. The hard core of the Flemish nationalist movement has been asking for more ever since, only to reject each institutional compromise that was made en route – six since 1970 . That hard core, that is part of the nationalist party NVA, is nowadays hoping for a split-up of Belgium and an independent Flanders.
The former prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, who died last week, was a champion in managing the diversity of this country through backroom deals and sometimes even slightly absurd compromise-packages that were wilfully made complicated, so that no one could really understand what everybody around the table had given up. His predecessor Wilfried Martens, the long-time president of the European People’s Party who passed away last autumn, was also a master in this art, as is the present President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, who was prime minister of Belgium in 2009 (See for Van Rompuy and Martens ‘Background: Three years of immobility’ on this blog in August 2010).
Dehaenes successor as prime minister Guy Verhofstadt (See ‘enter the prime minister’ on this blog in December 2007), nowadays a star in the election battle for the next leader of the Commission, had a different method but with the same results: he developed and promoted visionary reforms, but in time made his own subtle and opaque compromise-packages after bringing everybody together around a good meal and being generous to all his coalition-partners.
Still it is probably the present prime minister, Elio di Rupo, who could stand as a symbol of how far diversity has taken root in Belgium. Like Martens (and another former prime minister, Achiel Van Acker, who ruled the country after the Second World War) he was born in a desperately poor family, but picked up early as a talent for a state grant to finance his studies, and so started his career. Being the son of an Italian immigrant, he succeeded in becoming prime minister, although he is only the second French-speaking socialist to do so. Most astonishing is that he is openly gay, but that this has not for a single moment been a point of discussion in the country, not even after a few drinks in the backrooms of conservative catholics.
On the other hand political tensions have been on the rise again, since the bank-crisis in 2008 started five years of economic distress. Belgium weathered the biggest depression in eighty years not too badly, according to the recent report of the IMF. It is one of the three western European countries where gdp is now slightly higher than it was in 2008. The rise in unemployment and of Belgium’s global debt during the five years of crisis have been among the lowest in Europe.
At the same time the country has the highest tax rates in Europe after Denmark. Its industry – especially the most labour-intensive – suffers from too high wage-costs, compared to its neighbours, although the IMF signals that in this at least as much the slowing of productivity is playing a role. Traffic jams, overregulation, confusing laws due to the process of devolution, far too many civil servants, a badly managed migration and too fast rising social security costs for the sickness insurance and the pensions are the biggest burdens on the way to renewed economic prosperity.
It is on these deficiencies – that are worries for the future without yet staining the economic statistics of today – that the Flemish nationalists and their leader Bart De Wever have been capitalising. They prone a radical change to more right-wing economic policies, after 25 years of centre-left rule with the socialists almost permanently in all governments. That program seems to bear fruits in the frustration of many Flemish about the economic decline of their region (see ‘Background: the final failure of quite a good government’). Latest export statistics suggest that Wallony could indeed come better out of the crisis than the now still more prosperous north.
All this brings the country at a crossroad, when, as is expected, Mr. De Wever and his NVA would score an overall victory in next weekend’s general elections (for both the federal en regional parliaments). What follows then is not yet clear. His track record as a mayor of Antwerp, Flanders biggest city, since 17 months, does not really offer a clue. Mr. De Wever permanently tries to picture himself as a classic Belgian mayor, a kind of fatherly figure for all citizens. But he has had his polarizing moments too, especially when it came to issues of security, police and justice, where, in his attempts to lure the voters that once gave 35 % of the votes in Antwerp to the extreme right, he has not refrained from putting rhetoric oil on the fire in potentially violent conflicts.
So we will have to wait and see, should Mr. De Wever be the sole winner of the elections and should the new King, Philip the First, invest him with the reins of power. The huge electoral breakthrough of the Flemish nationalists in 2010, and especially the fact that Mr. De Wever then went a long way to stay out of the job of the prime minister of Belgium, seem to indicate that he might want to get rid of the long-time Belgian tradition of an elite forging complex compromises to keep the extreme diversity working. The price in that case will be the break-up of Belgium and years of political instability. As Belgian diversity has been ruled more or less in similar ways as the European one, this shift would no doubt be a testcase for the EU too.
But some hope that the nationalist leader will be more clever than that, surely when the Flemish Christian democrats, ever since 1830 the leading party in Flanders, would lose badly. In that case Mr. De Wever might simply want try to consolidate the position of his NVA as the biggest party in town. To achieve that he would then limit his nationalist credentials to something very much like the noisy nationalistic rhetorics and the Flag-and Lederhosen-symbolism of the Bavarian CSU, while steering the day-to-day administration with the same pragmatism as the München elite. In that case, the tradition of pragmatic rule in Belgium would be upheld. But of course, up to now only mr. De Wever himself – the uncontested leader of his party, as the only NVA-politician scoring high in the popularity polls - can say exactly what he has in his mind