16 September 2007

Brussels, Federal District

It’s more than one hundred days now that there was a general election in Belgium, but there is no government or prospects that one can be formed soon. The negotiations between the leading Flemish Conservative party and its Walloon counterparts failed. Meanwhile, the governments of Flanders and of Wallonia run on their own, business as usual. Perhaps, after all, this might be the most peaceful way to disband a state: by just dissolving the government and not forming a new one.

Actually, as an investment in peace, the state of Belgium is redeemed. Belgium was created, in the 1830s, as a wall between France and Germany, in the middle of the main axis of polarization and war in Europe. Napoleon had been defeated just at the surroundings of Brussels (in Waterloo). Belgium was formed soon afterwards as a state in perpetual neutrality. But also the Franco-Prussian war and the two World Wars were largely fought on Belgian soil. Logically, the Belgian state was persistently ahead in the attempts to build large areas of free trade and peaceful cooperation. After achieving the pioneer Benelux agreement with its neighbors, it was one of the founding members of the European communities, which led to the current European Union. Nowadays, a united and peaceful Europe has become a success helped in part by the traditional neutral and conveying role of the Belgian state. But precisely for this, to maintain Belgium as a unity may be less indispensable than ever before.

Whilst Belgium was opening outside, there was increasing rivalry and polarization inside. The likely split of Belgium is a neat example of the difficulties for a federal state to endure if it is formed with only two units. If only two territorial groups exist within a federation, polarization may develop on some divisive issue. Generally, if one of the territories is sufficiently large and sufficiently domineering, it may be able to try to impose its exclusive rule. The ambition to dominate may lead the larger group to the absorption in a unified structure of the weaker groups, while the latter may try secession (as happened, for instance, in the Serbia-dominated Yugoslavia). If the two groups have similar size, as in the Belgian case, a particularly unstable and conflictive relationship can develop. Each group can expect to be able to form a political majority and rule over the other, or to share power in an advantageous position, which may foster rivalry for domination. There are indeed many cases of only two-unit federations that split up (including, for instance, the Czechs and the Slovaks most recently). In contrast, more stable federal republics have high numbers of units, each of them sufficiently small in relative terms that none can reasonably feed ambitions of becoming dominant. Cases include, of course, Germany (with 16 units) and Switzerland (with 26), as well as the United States (with 50). The very European Union is also an increasingly self-assertive federal-like union, with 27 members now.

In Belgium, a traditional French-speaking and relatively wealthy Walloon majority began to be replaced, about forty years ago, with a new Dutch-speaking and newly prosperous majority, thus modifying each group’s expectations and relative positions as ruler and challenger. As a consequence of this rivalry, the Belgian state has been increasingly decentralized. Some balance between the two basic units was maintained on the basis of organizing Brussels as the third region in between. Brussels –French-speaking and Flemish-surrounded-- has been a wall within a wall . But the intermediate and balancing role of Brussels within Belgium is nowadays weakened as the two other regions decamp. The city, in contrast, is highly profiled in the international scene, as is the flamboyant capital of the European Union and the headquarters of many other European organizations, as well as of NATO. If Flanders and Wallonia stay ruling on their own, Brussels could just become the federal district of Europe, located as it is --somehow like Washington DC is in America-- at the meeting point between the North and the South of the Union.


REFERENCE

You may want see my book on the matter:

Large Empires, Small Nations.
The Uncertain Future of the Sovereign State
CLICK

Just published!


COMMENT

Rein Taagepera said...

Yes, it's quite likely.

Rein,
returning to Irvine on 21 Sept.


Pieterjan said...

Dear Sir,

I tend to disagree with your appreciation of the present Belgian crisis for several reasons.
1) to present the role of the Brussels Region as a ‘intermediate and balancing role’ in the Flemish/Walloon rivalry – as I understood from your text – is, in my opinion, an overstatement. In my perception of everyday politics, Brussels Region has only a mild and limited influence on the rivalry, since its jurisdiction does not include volatile issues. Besides, both the Flemish and the Francophone Community remain responsible for the personal/individual matters of the(ir) inhabitants of the Region (which resulted in several conflicts over the years and lead to a closer cooperation/coordination as a result);
2) to portray Brussels as a ‘French-speaking and Flemish-surrounded’ region may be the dream of both Francophone and Flemish nationalists but hardly a reality. Recent research shows that just about half of the people living in Brussels are unilingual French. English and Arab are fast catching up with French. Flemish/Dutch stays a minority but official language. Brussels is Flemish-surrounded in theory, but not in practice: one of the basic reasons for the present political ‘crisis’ is precisely that the Francophone parties don’t want to split Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde as a constituency (as required by the constitution) because it would cost them a lot of votes from Francophones living in the ‘Flemish’ cities.

3) who would have the sovereignty over Brussels D.C.? Whilst Washington D.C. has a special status in the USA, it remains part of the American state. Brussels is important both for Belgium and the two regions alike (for Flanders because it is the administrative and political center of the Flemish government: for Wallonia because a lot of inhabitants are part of the French Community and are looking towards the South). An agreement on Brussels would even be, in my opinion, more difficult than an agreement on the future of Belgium (e.g. about 300.000 Flemish people work in Brussels; their income taxes now go to the federal government. Where would these taxes go if independent Flanders and Wallonia would administer Brussels together?). Besides, Brussels as a (European) federal district would have the symbolic connotation of the coming into being of a ‘United States of Europe’ or differently put: a truly federal Europe.

The good thing about the present crisis is that separation/independence (and more specifically: the practical realities of it) are discussed in mainstream media. The abstract idea of ‘Flemish independence’ – as put forward by Flemish nationalists – is made concrete: the economic cost (division of debt, division of real estate and moveable goods, the losses for the industry, …) and gains are all discussed in popular media (and presumably at the kitchen table or in the pub). Again, I guess it will take more time, more efforts and more heated and infinite discussion to come to an agreement on independence than it will take time to form a government which comes up with a feasible compromise. Besides, it took/takes the Czech (!) and Dutch government even longer to form a government.
The present political crisis is in my opinion a result of Belgium being an incomplete federal state: politicians (in both units) need to find the courage to complete the federalization of Belgium (e.g. reform of the legislative system and allocation of powers). Belgium as a federal state surely has a future: even hardcore Flemish nationalists would agree on that.

Wkr,
Pieterjan De Vlieger
Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Joan Costa Font said...

Absolutely agree in that small state federations are likely to fall apart especially if differences in language and culture stand behind. But, polarisation and a general inability of the federation to accomodate wide differences in preferences and values can well take place in assymetrically large federations( e.g., Catalonia). May be the problem then is that assymetrcal federalism is a myth of political scientists, rather that a feasible (real life) institutional option ( in cultutally heterogenenous states).

London School of Economics




1 Comments:

Blogger Pieter-Jan said...

Dear Sir,

I tend to disagree with your appreciation of the present Belgian crisis for several reasons.
1) to present the role of the Brussels Region as a ‘intermediate and balancing role’ in the Flemish/Walloon rivalry – as I understood from your text – is, in my opinion, an overstatement. In my perception of everyday politics, Brussels Region has only a mild and limited influence on the rivalry, since its jurisdiction does not include volatile issues. Besides, both the Flemish and the Francophone Community remain responsible for the personal/individual matters of the(ir) inhabitants of the Region (which resulted in several conflicts over the years and lead to a closer cooperation/coordination as a result);
2) to portray Brussels as a ‘French-speaking and Flemish-surrounded’ region may be the dream of both Francophone and Flemish nationalists but hardly a reality. Recent research shows that just about half of the people living in Brussels are unilingual French. English and Arab are fast catching up with French. Flemish/Dutch stays a minority but official language. Brussels is Flemish-surrounded in theory, but not in practice: one of the basic reasons for the present political ‘crisis’ is precisely that the Francophone parties don’t want to split Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde as a constituency (as required by the constitution) because it would cost them a lot of votes from Francophones living in the ‘Flemish’ cities.
3) who would have the sovereignty over Brussels D.C.? Whilst Washington D.C. has a special status in the USA, it remains part of the American state. Brussels is important both for Belgium and the two regions alike (for Flanders because it is the administrative and political center of the Flemish government: for Wallonia because a lot of inhabitants are part of the French Community and are looking towards the South). An agreement on Brussels would even be, in my opinion, more difficult than an agreement on the future of Belgium (e.g. about 300.000 Flemish people work in Brussels; their income taxes now go to the federal government. Where would these taxes go if independent Flanders and Wallonia would administer Brussels together?). Besides, Brussels as a (European) federal district would have the symbolic connotation of the coming into being of a ‘United States of Europe’ or differently put: a truly federal Europe.

The good thing about the present crisis is that separation/independence (and more specifically: the practical realities of it) are discussed in mainstream media. The abstract idea of ‘Flemish independence’ – as put forward by Flemish nationalists – is made concrete: the economic cost (division of debt, division of real estate and moveable goods, the losses for the industry, …) and gains are all discussed in popular media (and presumably at the kitchen table or in the pub). Again, I guess it will take more time, more efforts and more heated and infinite discussion to come to an agreement on independence than it will take time to form a government which comes up with a feasible compromise. Besides, it took/takes the Czech (!) and Dutch government even longer to form a government.
The present political crisis is in my opinion a result of Belgium being an incomplete federal state: politicians (in both units) need to find the courage to complete the federalization of Belgium (e.g. reform of the legislative system and allocation of powers). Belgium as a federal state surely has a future: even hardcore Flemish nationalists would agree on that.

Wkr,
Pieterjan De Vlieger
Vrije Universiteit Brussel

10:25 AM  

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