By Thomas Bellig
In May 2018 Belgium not only organised elections for the European Parliament, but also held federal elections and regional elections. After the elections and the instalment of the newly elected parliaments the process began of forming a new government, or rather the process of forming no less than six governments. Due to the complicated Belgian state structure this country has no fewer than six different autonomous governments that are not subordinated to a higher government. The good news so far is that five out of six Belgian governments have been formed. The bad news is that, a half year after the elections, the sixth one, being the federal government, is far from even the beginning of being formed.
As a country that lies right on both the cultural and linguistic border between Germanic and Romance Europe, Belgium has always faced a turbulent and difficult history. Culturally and linguistically speaking the country is made up of two quite different regions inhabited by two peoples, the Flemish people and the Walloon people. The Flemish people live in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium, speak (a dialect of) Dutch and have a population of around 6,6 million people. The Walloon people live in Wallonia, the southern part of Belgium, speak (a dialect of) French and have a population of around 3,7 million people. In Brussels, the Belgian capital with a population of around 1,2 million people, both groups live together, with a clear dominance of the French-speaking community.
After revolting against the Netherlands and gaining independence in 1830, Belgium became a completely French dominated state, with no cultural and linguistic rights for the Flemish people and extreme forms of economic, juridical and social discrimination towards the Flemish. Throughout Belgian history this created many tensions, ultimately resulting in a process of turning Belgium from a unitary state into a federal state from the 1960’s onwards. This process was reinforced by the strong economic progress Flanders has made after World War II, while the initially much richer and more prosperous Wallonia had great difficulties in making the transition from an industrial society to a post-industrial one.
Over the decades a special federal state system was created whereby various governments and parliaments co-exist within the same country. It is crucial to note that these governments and parliaments are not hierarchically structured. Every government and parliament is equally sovereign with only the constitutional court being able to repeal laws that are issued by these parliaments. The far going federalization of the country went hand in hand with the splitting of all Belgian political parties. Since the early 1970’s there have been Belgium political parties, there are only Flemish political parties and Walloon political parties. Some ideologies are represented in both parts of the countries. There are for example both Flemish and Walloon socialists, liberals, Christian-democrats and greens. Other ideologies are found on only one side of the language and culture barrier. For example, in Flanders there are two nationalist parties, one far-right and one conservative, while there are currently no similar parties in Wallonia.
Currently the process of federalizing the state has gone remarkably far. After the last rounds of constitutional reform, which took place in 2011, the majority of competences now belong to the regions with their parliaments and governments rather than to the federal parliament and its government. Education, Welfare, agriculture, cultural affairs, economy, scientific research, work, media, and tourism, to give but a few examples, are all domains that are exclusively regulated by the regions, resulting in them being the product of Flemish or Walloon policy rather than Belgian policy.
The elections of May 2019 resulted in a mixed picture, because of very diverse outcomes in the two parts of the country. In Wallonia and Brussels both the center-left and the extreme leftist parties, this is the PS (socialist, S&D), Ecolo (Greens) and PTB (communist) emerged victorious; with CDH (Former Christian-Democrats, EPP) being reduced to a small party, and the MR (liberals, Renew Europe) being the only center-right party that remains standing in Wallonia. In Flanders on the other hand, the center-right and far-right won the elections, with Vlaams Belang (nationalist populist, far-right, ID), N-VA (nationalist, conservatives, ECR) emerging as the two victors, followed by CD&V (Christian-democrats, EPP) and the VLD (liberals, Renew Europe), with the three left-leaning parties, socialists (sp.a), greens (Groen) and communist (PVDA), gaining very little votes.
As a result of these elections the regional governments were formed rather easily. In Flanders a center-right government was formed, made up of N-VA, CD&V and VLD, which is a continuation of the previous government. In Wallonia a center-left coalition was made between PS, MR and Ecolo. In Brussels a center-left government was formed by PS, Ecolo, Groen, sp.a, VLD and Défi. However, given the radically different outcome of the elections in the two parts of the country and given the early formations of regional governments that are ideologically speaking on two different ends of the political specter, Belgian federal government formation turns out to be extremely difficult. Almost half a year after the elections little or no progress has been made. The process hitherto has mainly consisted in parties from both parts of the countries raising vetoes against one another and refusing to engage in talks. The only mathematically viable option seems to be a heterogeneous coalition of the Flemish center-right parties with the Walloon center-left parties, including both Flemish and Walloon liberals, both Flemish and Walloon socialist and the Flemish Nationalist Conservatives.
The world record for the longest government formation is sadly already in Belgian hands. After the elections of 2010 Belgium was left without a federal government for 541 days. The current situation is however looking as difficult as the situation was back in 2010 and questions arise to weather the previous record will be beaten in following months. A possible solution could be to call for new elections, but it can be doubted whether this would be helpful, as polls indicate that the far-right in Flanders and the far-left in Wallonia would be the only ones gaining in the scenario of new elections, complicating the political scenario further.
For the rest there seem to be only two options. If the Walloon center-left and the Flemish center-right could let go of their mutual contempt and focus on necessary economic and social reform, a relatively effective, although not so coherent, government could be formed. Without this much needed breakthrough the end of Belgium could be nearer than one would like it to be. With the two nationalist parties occupying almost a majority in the Flemish parliament, speculations have been on the rise again regarding a potential split of the country by means of a one-sided Flemish declaration of independence.
Given the turmoil and disaster this would bring to the country and its people, we can only hope that continued dialogue will lead to a workable compromise for a new federal government, maybe combined with an even stronger empowerment of the regions to the expense of the federal state.