Belgium at the Tipping Point

Historians will one day look back at the past week as a decisive tipping point which headed Belgium into split-up. Read on…




Belgium at the Tipping Point

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

I think historians will one day look back at the past week as a decisive tipping point which headed Belgium into split-up.

As usual, the critical factor is consciousness, and for the French-speaking 43% of the population, it has now turned from Going Concern to Liquidation, or what is euphemistically called here in the press–Plan B. Meanwhile a couple of weeks ago an RTL-sponsored public opinion poll in Flanders showed that about 50% of the population of Flanders now backs separatist parties.

Specifically what happened in the past week was a newspaper interview by the Minister-President of Flanders, in which he stated that the reallocation of federal competences in the forthcoming grand institutional reform of the state towards confederalism would not be shared by the Brussels-Capital Region, which would remain a smaller brother under the tutelage of the two main Communities of Flemish and Francophones. The unstated implication is that in any divorce proceedings both successor states would co-manage Brussels and share in its wealth as the economic powerhouse of the region. And upon delivering this bombshell, he took a plane off to Brazil to promote Flemish trade interests.

Mr Peeters was in effect sabotaging the royal mission to form a government directed by his fellow CD&V (Flemish Christian Democrats) by raising high the most contentious issue separating the two linguistic groups in the country from the very start of the government crisis 10 months ago, namely the arrangements around the city of Brussels and how to deal with its French-speaking southern suburbs which fall within the Flemish side of the linguistic borders drawn up in 1963.

French-speaking champion of Brussels, leader of the FDF fraction within the liberal MR party, Olivier Maingain, seized the bait still on the weekend and stated his plan to introduce a bill into the Brussels parliament affirming its full rights to equal treatment as a constituent Region of the Kingdom of Belgium and its ambition to extend geographically to take in the French-speaking suburbs and possibly more territory to the north, so as to align the city’s borders with its true economic, demographic and tax-paying basin. The stated intention of Mr. Maingain was to flush out the position vis-a-vis Brussels of all French-speaking parties. The shilly-shallying of the past would be confronted directly.

And with that the horses flashed past the gate.  On 4 April we had the stunning declaration of all the Francophone parties of the Brussels-Capital Region and of Wallonia that the French-speaking Community would now be renamed the “Federation of Wallonia and Brussels.” In effect this means that Wallonia would no longer be willing to compromise the interests of the capital, which is 90% French-speaking but legally bilingual with a vastly overprotected Flemish minority that was given half of the seats in the regional government by law in the last institutional reform of the 1990s. It is an enormous step for the French-speaking PS (Socialist Party), which dominates the politics of Wallonia and had been tipped to head any new federal government under the leadership of Elio Di Rupo with the support of the leading Flemish nationalist party, the NV-A of Bart De Wever.

It is now hard to see how the latest royal mission at forming a federal government will succeed. But that is the least of it. More importantly, the issue of Liquidation has been swept out into the open from beneath the carpet.  Belgian newspapers of 5 April carried interviews with Eric Van Rompuy (the brother of Herman Van Rompuy, the EU President), a leading member of the Flemish CD&V, stating that the new Federation of Wallonia and Brussels represents an end-game play. Several other Flemish party leaders weighed in similarly.

And they are perfectly right. It took the French-speakers 18 years to catch up with their Flemish compatriots and to see every looming institutional reform in Belgium only from the perspective of what it means after the state breaks up. The Flemish had that in their calculations when they planted their flag in Brussels and made it their Region’s capital in 1993, while the Francophones pretended not to see anything peculiar and put their Region’s capital in the backwater of Namur.

By creating the Federation, the Francophones are now clearly preparing their appeal to take unshared possession of the overwhelmingly French-speaking national capital in its present 19 communes plus demanding the take-over of the 60-70% French-speaking suburbs which are now Flemish de jure but not de facto. When the French-speakers present their legal case in this way, Europe will be very hard pressed to deny a self-determination referendum to these suburbs and so the final piece in the collapse of Belgium into two nation-states, a Republic of Flanders and a Federation (Kingdom) of Wallonia and Brussels, will fall into place.

It remains to be seen whether these changes will continue to advance in a civilized and democratic manner.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2011

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G. Doctorow will be a panelist in the Round Table entitled “Is There a Future for Belgian Federalism?” at the World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities, Columbia University, New York City, 18 April 2013.