What future for a united Belgium?

20th July 2005, Comments 0 comments

Divided by language, Belgians of all tongues are celebrating the nation's 175th birthday and 25 years of federalism this year. But what does it mean and what future lies in wait for Belgium?

Belgium is celebrating 175 years with an eye glued firmly to the future

Belgium's Independence Day takes on extra significance this year.

It's when divisions between the linguistic communities can be (briefly) forgotten as the nation celebrates 175 years of independence and 25 years of federalism.

Pretty good for a country some observers say should not exist.

To mark the occasion, the federal government has teamed up with the Wallonian, Flemish and Brussels Regions and the Communities to arrange a full programme of festivities.

Of particular importance is the theme; looking forward to the future and encouraging and providing opportunities for co-operation.

"It's all about exchanging ideas between cultures, between generations, between the political, economic and social worlds and between citizens," the organisers say.

But how did Belgium come about and where is the nation headed?

Birth of a nation

A decision was made at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to unite Belgium and Holland to be ruled by King William I.

However, Catholics protested against the interference of the Protestant King in clerical matters, while the Liberals demanded greater freedom. In 1828, they jointly drew up demands for change.

Revolution erupted in Brussels in 1830. William I sent in troops, but they were repulsed on 27 September 1830 and a provisional Belgian government declared independence on 4 October 1830.

On 7 February 1831, the National Congress approved the Belgian Constitution.

In the beginning, Belgium was firmly ruled from Brussels, but power gradually shifted towards federalism and autonomous rule in the nation's linguistic regions.

Divisions develop

French was initially adopted as the official Belgian language, but the Flemish felt discriminated against and demanded Dutch be declared an official language also.

Dutch was made equal to French in 1898, but the Flemish still demanded the language of each region be declared the official language.

This demand was met in 1931 when legislation recognised the use of a single language in Flanders and Wallonia and designated special rules for Brussels.

Divisions between Wallonia and Flanders have plagued Belgium

However, language was not the only issue: Wallonian activists had demanded self rule for Wallonia even back in 1913.

And divisions opened up again in the post-World War II era when King Leopold III tried to reclaim the throne.

An ensuing referendum showed a majority wanted the King to return, with 72 percent of Flemish and 42 percent of Wallonians in favour of Leopold's return.

Divided between the Catholics and Liberals, Belgium was on the verge of civil war until King Leopold decided to give his throne to his 20-year-old son Prince Baudouin, who was crowned King in 1953. This was seen as defeat for the Flemish.

In the 1960s, the country's single economic policy aggravated Wallonians who demanded economic autonomy. They were also concerned about being the demographic minority and losing sway in state powers.

A linguistic border was drawn across the country in 1962. Belgium was then divided in 1963 into four linguistic regions: French-speaking, Dutch-speaking, German-speaking and bilingual (Brussels).

State reform and federalism

Constitutional revision in 1970 established three cultural communities, representing the start of State reform. The foundations were also laid for establishing three Regions with primarily economic powers.

In 1980, the second stage of state reform took place granting the Flemish, French and German communities authority not only over cultural matters, but also health and social services.

This phase also saw the creation of the Flemish Region and the Walloon Region; the birth of the federal state.

The third state reform in 1988-89 saw the Brussels-Capital Region take shape when it was given its own governing institutions.

In 1993, Belgium became a fully-fledged federal state when the communities and regions received full powers and federalism was officially enshrined in the Constitution.

There are now three levels of government (federal, regional and linguistic community) with a complex division of responsibilities.

The economics of marriage

Still separated by language, culture and history, some observers suggest Belgium should simply divide in two.

Daring to pick up the hot political potato, Francophone Socialist (PS) leader Elio Di Rupo called in March 2005 for a referendum to be held over the nation's future.

For all festivities, visit www.175-25.be

The separatist right-wing Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang) warmly welcomed the proposal, claiming Flanders no longer benefits from the union. It accused Wallonia of instead greatly benefiting from federalism.

However, like several other political parties, the Socialist Spirit party rejected the proposal and said the continued existence of Belgium was a non-issue. It backed continued State reform to ensure good governance.

With such different opinions, the referendum question fizzled out and Belgium returned to the status quo of silent division.

However, the economic problems in Wallonia and the financial support afforded to the region are chronic problems.

Analysts have questioned whether Flanders is simply picking up the social tab for Wallonia's outmoded heavy industry economics.

Flanders is quick to forget though that the Wallonian economy was Belgium's prime motor for many years: the Flemish Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita did not exceed Wallonia's until 1961.

Since then, the Wallonian economy has stagnated and successive economic recovery plans have failed to resolve the permanent crisis.

Wallonian economists are now suggesting the financial support afforded Wallonia is "rocking" the region to sleep.

PS leader Di Rupo recently called for a Marshall Plan to rescue Wallonia and the regional government will present another economic recovery plan later this year.

However, the issue remains a sore point for the more prosperous Flemish.

Belgium's future

The complexity of Belgium is evidenced by the country's four 'national days'.

The national Independence Day is observed on 21 July in honour of when King Leopold I ascended the throne in 1831.

But Flanders also celebrates the Flemish Community Holiday on 11 July, while Wallonia celebrates the Wallonian Community Holiday on 27 September. The small German-speaking region also has a holiday; 15 November

Leading Dutch-speaking politicians again took the opportunity of the recent Flemish holiday to call for greater financial autonomy for the regional governments.

Guy Verhofstadt has agreed to enter new state reform talks

Such calls from Flanders have been vocal and frequent in recent history, but these calls had a somewhat more diplomatic tone this year.

And despite the fact Wallonian Prime Minister Jean-Claude Van Cauwenberghe urged Flemish leaders to convince him of the merits of state reform, he also cautiously indicated he was open for discussions.

Belgium's future will now be the subject of "discreet" state reform discussions over the next couple of years.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt recently agreed with Di Rupo and Flemish Prime Minister Yves Leterme to prepare the ground for official talks around the 2007 federal elections.

But with a poll indicating 87 percent of Belgians want the country to remain united, King Albert II has expressed confidence Belgium — as a nation — has a promising future.

But the immediate future holds the prospect of more dialogue and continued state reform until the nation can finally settle into a federalist equilibrium.

20 July 2005

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Belgian Independence Day, 21 July, Belgium's future

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