The breakup of Belgium?

August 11, 2011

Jason Netek looks at the unfolding political crisis in Belgium.

AFTER 414 days without a formal government, the northern European nation of Belgium is showing the world just how easily the capitalist system can function without the consent of the governed.

The current political crisis is but the latest act in a four-year-long political drama that has seen the country's very existence as a single entity come under threat. Recent events suggest the country could split into two. If the union is broken into pieces, what are the implications for working people who currently identify as "Belgian"?

Belgium is a nation of some 10.4 million people. Like many political entities in Europe, it is made up of ethnically distinct populations with their own identities. Due to the ever-shifting boundaries of European states through history, the nation is divided neatly in two. The northern half of the country, Flanders, is predominantly Dutch. The Flemish people make up roughly 60 percent of the Belgian population.

The southern half, Wallonia, is French-speaking. The Walloons make up just under 40 percent of the population. The small German-speaking community in the east of Wallonia makes up slightly less than 1 percent. The capital of Brussels is home to 2 million people from all three regions, though the vast majority speaks French only.

Bart de Wever, chairman of the right-wing New Flemish Alliance
Bart de Wever, chairman of the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (David Cumps)

All three communities have their own parliaments, and the national government is a complex mix of direct elections from the different communities and appointments from regional elected governments. Each community is allotted a number of ministers proportional their actual share of the population. The parliament is bicameral, and in the true spirit of traditions that stand in defiance of reason, the head of state is a monarch, complete with hereditary title.

Belgium has been a constant source of tension for imperialist powers in the numerous continental wars of the past due to its three populations being more similar to their respective closest neighbors than each other. Dutch, French and German empires have all felt able to lay claim to Belgium at one point or another.

Today, the country is the jewel in the crown of the multicultural European Union (EU). It stands to reason that if Belgium can exist in a perpetual state of compromise between different communities, then Europe can, too.

Such thinking papers over the very real economic differences between classes and the very real ethnic lines that are drawn around them. Indeed, Flemish separatism is based on a longstanding tradition of favoring the French-speaking region--first in the realm of power and wealth, and by extension, the realm of culture.

ELECTIONS HELD on June 10, 2007, yielded widely different results between the two regions and would set off the beginning of a four-year period of political instability. In the Flemish north, an alliance made up of the center-right Christian Democratic and Flemish Party (CD&V) and the right-wing separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) won a majority. In the Wallonian south, the liberal Reformist Movement (MR) achieved a slight majority over the center-left Socialist Party (PS).

The N-VA bases its politics on the idea of a Flemish independent state in the long run, and stands for an immediate curbing of immigration and the implementation of harsh austerity measures to pay for the national debt, which includes raising the retirement age and cutting spending on health care and welfare programs.

Historically, Wallonia has been the dominant region, but today, Flanders is wealthier and the N-VA has adopted an arrogant attitude toward the poorer southern region. The party's current leader, Bart De Wever, has likened any state investment in Wallonia to "an injection like a drug for a junkie." This kind of thinking is consistent with his party's contempt for social programs in general and is likely a sign of things to come for Flemish workers.

The PS, nominally of the left, only stands firmly against their Flemish rivals on the question of their independence, arguably the only position they could reasonably tolerate. Their agreement to solve the crisis on the backs of workers should come as no surprise. The PS is sadly only one of the many sellout parties of the center-left across Europe that is failing to present any alternative to the austerity programs of the capitalist class.

Its sister parties in Greece, Spain and Britain have enthusiastically marched to the front lines on the side of capital and have imposed cuts in social spending which parallel those of the most conservative governments on the continent.

None of the parties achieved an outright majority on a national scale, and the king quickly appointed a mediator to help the parties agree to some kind of coalition government. For the meantime, an interim caretaker government was authorized by the king to carry on the business of the state, leaving some to wonder what the point of an election actually may be.

The fact that the absence of an elected government had so little effect on the ability of the state to conduct its affairs speaks volumes about the quality of democracy that exists under capitalism. The Belgian government, like every capitalist government, relies on an unelected bureaucracy within the state apparatus that works to ensure that elections do not stand in the way of the state's most important functions.

THE INABILITY of the king's men to cobble any of the parties into a government lasted for 196 days. Eventually, a government was formed, but it was brought down by the same contradictions that made it so hard to form in the first place. Despite their agreement to punish workers for the problems created by capitalism's crisis, the parties cannot agree as to how.

A series of negotiations led to the rise and fall of five different short-lived governments until finally early elections were called for 2010 as a way out of the impasse. The next vote, however, would only deepen the crisis.

Elections held on June 13, 2010, further cemented the divisions between Wallonia and Flanders as Flanders came out even stronger for the N-VA and Wallonia came out even stronger for the PS. Rather than resolving any of the issues between the parties, the new elections served only to exacerbate them. After a full year and the resignations of another batch of mediators, the nation still has no government, and another election may need to be called. The lack of a government made up of elected political parties did not at all prevent the Belgian state from commiting fighter jets to NATO's imperialist adventure in Libya.

Over the year, a number of commentators have speculated about the possibility of Belgium's dissolution. Would Flanders join the Netherlands? Would Wallonia join France? Would they both join the EU as member states? For the most part, putting Belgium to rest is seen as unfortunate in the mainstream press.

To be sure, the breakup of the nation would spell tragedy for some. Brussels is home to both NATO and the EU. In the event of a split, the government's huge public debt would be a major source of contention. To top it all off, there is the pesky question of the centuries-old monarchy. Whatever would become of the king if his country were to leave him?

The real concern for socialists worthy of the name, however, is what the implications may be for ordinary workers in both regions. Whether Flemish or Walloon, Belgian workers face an assault on their living standards as do their brothers and sisters across Europe. In one sense, the lack of an official government has been a good thing. The various caretaker governments have only had limited powers and cannot legally push through the budget-slashing austerity measures that more stable European governments have placed on the agenda.

In January of this year, a demonstration of 34,000 was held in the capital city demanding the formation of some kind of government. For their part, the PS and N-VA have requested that fresh elections be called. Neither party is interested in a second year of negotiations. The king responded to their request with a brilliant display of the impracticality of monarchy, saying, "I will never sign a decision to hold new elections. I will not let you. That is a no."

The Flemish and Walloon working classes should adopt a similarly unyielding attitude and make it clear that they won't tolerate any government that proposes they pay for the bosses' crisis.

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