The state of Belgium could be described with several choice adjectives; precarious, confusing and overcomplicated are but a few of them. Nevertheless, it is our job to make sense of the senseless.
After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the collected rulers of the surviving ancien regime powers famously wished to create a buffer state between the powers of France and pre-unification Germany. Judging by the two subsequent 20th century foreign occupations, this worked exactly as planned.
The United Kingdom of The Netherlands was thus formed: A state comprising modern day Belgium and The Netherlands. However, a mere fifteen years later, this state of affairs would be proven to be a short term one.
Belgium itself was founded in 1830 after a bourgeois-led Revolution, which had more to do with the level of taxation and political access than any real ethno-religious conflict. This, despite the low countries which formed the United Kingdom of the Netherlands lying on both a linguistic (Roman Vs Germanic) and religious border (Catholic Europe Vs Protestantism).
As such, many historians since have romanticised the revolution and the idea of a Belgian history, starting with Henri Pirenne's famously constructed national myth: L'histoire De Belgique. This rather unwieldy seven volume historiographical work sets out a history of the Belgians, roughly starting with the Roman conquest under Julius Caesar.
'The Belgae', he writes, 'are the bravest among the tribes'. Caesar attributes this to the remoteness of the region, far removed from the cultural and trade hubs of the Mediterranean and Middle East and the constant warring with their Germanic Neighbours across the Rhine. This one passage is one of the first historical facts taught to Belgian school children. Other major events referenced include the 1302 battle of the golden spurs, the beeldenstorm, part of the iconoclastic wave of violence aimed at the Catholic church during the reformation of the 16th century and the rejection of Joseph II, who is much reviled for interfering with the workings of the Catholic church. These two events seem highly contradictory, but for the fact that Belgium lies on the European border between catholic and protestant dominated states.
The problem for a modern day observer is that virtually nothing of this relates to modern Belgians or even the idea of a Belgian nation state. What would later become Belgium and the northern Netherlands had, after all, been split culturally and economically since the start of the reformation, during which the south was ruled by the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs in succession. Before that it was just a collection of city states, of which the longest lasting was the Prince Bishopric of Liege, disestablished in 1795.
This tendency to create a national unifying myth is certainly not unusual in Europe. For other examples, see Germany and Italy, composite states formed from smaller territories with some degree of cultural homogeneity (though don't tell a citizen of 18th century Piedmont this). It also isn't necessarily a problematic state of affairs, at least until the wrong faction abuses the invented tradition.
This is the case in Belgium. Like most other European nations, Belgium has long suffered from regional wealth disparity. During the 19th century through the first half of the 20th, Wallonia, the industrial heart of Belgium was economically Flanders's superior. The administrative language was decided by an extensive local linguistic census once every ten years, leading to disparities in administrative language and spoken. Factory workers the country over dealt with long hours, little pay, child labour and dangerous working conditions.
This led to worker's movements springing up all around the country. Many of them based around mutual funds for health insurance and unemployment. During the latter half of the 19th century, with socialists gaining significant levels of support, the Catholic church in Belgium subverted the nascent revolutionaries by creating their own mutual funds, followed by the liberals. The three pillared political foundation for the next century was now in place. To this day, the liberals, social democrats and Catholics are known as the Traditionele partijen.
Belgium remained more or less a unitary state until the language border was put in place in 1963, as a result of growing linguistic tensions. The Flemish movement had gained prominence during the aftermath of the first world war. One well known myth from the era is that the Belgian army was run by French officers who would only ever give out instructions in French, Et pour les Flamands, la même chose. (Transl: And for the Flemings, The same) leading to tens of thousands of Flemish deaths. While Field Marshal Foch was undoubtedly responsible for tens of thousands of needless deaths, no evidence of this myth, much less his intentions to get specifically Flemings killed is forthcoming. The most likely origin of this and other such tall tales is German propaganda. The German occupiers saw the Flemings as a more natural ally than their French speaking compatriots.
During the second world war, the de Facto split became even more apparent when the discourse surrounding the events of '14-'18 was co-opted by pro-Nazi Flemish nationalist groups. The Nazis, like their countrymen several decades earlier, saw useful allies in their Dutch-speaking neighbours, eventually declaring them Aryan and turning Flanders into a Reichsgau in 1944.
Many prominent Flemings actively collaborated with the occupying force, with the Mayor of Antwerp personally leading Razzias against Jews and other undesirable people.
Many Flemings also volunteered for the SS, with the Flemish Legion quickly gaining a reputation for particular cruelty towards resistance members and subsequently serving on the Eastern front. This caused serious issues immediately after the war, with the king being forced to abdicate for his role in the occupation and many Eastern front fighters losing their citizenship rights or being imprisoned. The Flemish Movement was thus able to claim that it was being suppressed and treated unfairly, despite collaborating against the state with a foreign occupation twice in the span of fifty years. This was further compounded by contrasting opinions between Wallonia and Flanders about whether to allow Leopold III, who had had close contact with Hitler, back on the throne. Flanders and Wallonia were now politically, as well as linguistically at odds with each other.
By 1963, tensions had risen so far that the only viable move was to split the country into three administrative parts: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.
Flanders had by now caught up economically with Wallonia, as the importance of the coal industry waned and the south's economy began shrinking following the industrialisation of the previously largely agrarian Flanders. As a compromise, a Federal state structure was suggested and adopted.
The Dutch would receive minority language status and protections, the expansion of Brussels would be held in place by the adoption of stringent rules requiring all Flemish civil servants to speak Dutch and Dutch alone, barring a number of faciliteitengemeenten (towns with dual facilities), where both could be spoken. Wallonia and Flanders would receive regional parliaments. This linguistic split was not, however, present in the Catholic University of Leuven. The university kept its French speaking departments and plans for expansion thereof running. By 1968, this was the cause for widespread upheaval and the ejection of French speaking academics from Flemish territory to Louvain-La-Neuve, around 30km to the south of the city of Leuven. These events coincided with the Christian democratic party splitting into two separate regional parties, today known as cdH (Wallonia and Brussels) And CD&V (Flanders).
By 1970, the federalisation process was well underway, with separate communes established for the various language groups and by 1977, the Egmont pact was signed, creating an additional parliament for each of the communes in addition to the communes. This forms the basis for how Belgium is run today.
- Chamber of representatives
- Walloon parliament
- Flemish parliament
- Brussels Parliament
- French community parliament
- German community parliament
On top of this, there are the levels of local and provincial government and a few others too small to mention.
Elections are based on a party list system and voting is mandatory. Spoiled ballots are impossible due to an almost entirely digitalised voting system.
All parties except for the ptb-pvda (Communist, labour party) are regional. This means that even sister parties may not be willing bedfellows, as the political landscapes on either side of the border are in stark contrast on the left-right divide.
Approximately forty years and six state reforms later, Belgium has regionalised such things as road infrastructure, policing, benefit payments, international trade and education, among many others. This leads to convoluted systems whereby to apply for unemployment benefits, one must first apply in the local branch of your union/government office after having signed on with either the French or Dutch speaking unemployment agency (CPAS and VDAB respectively), who will send your dossier to the oversight organisation at the federal level (RVA), which will then return the dossier back to your local office. This takes at least a month, usually three. While unemployment benefits are a multi level operation, however, the OCMW, Belgium's social security organisation was recently reformed to operate fully at the local council level, leading to even more confusion.
As a whole, this Bric à Brac system of state reform has led to widespread confusion over whom exactly is responsible for what. From police officers refusing to call up colleagues in a different language zone to hand over a case to local bureaucrats refusing to budge even an inch from their restrictive regulations for fear of making unfixable mistakes.
The same is true for almost any administrative task you wish to accomplish in Belgium. It is not uncommon to be sent from the town hall to the police and back several times in one day by different employees as they argue over whose responsibility something is. For instance to process a lost ID card or register a newly arrived foreigner.
This confusion extends to the ministerial level. There are nine ministers for public health, Four ministers for climate matters, yet road infrastructure is entirely administered by local councils.
As a result it's not hard to see how the judiciary has become overwhelmed in a country which rules by addenda. While there is only one minister for the interior and one federal police service, the police is also organised into local units, who do not always communicate with the federal level.
In the recent scandal surrounding the death of a Slovakian man in police custody at Charleroi airport, an officer is seen Nazi saluting and dancing as five of her colleagues sit atop a man who is unable to breathe with a blanket over his face. When asked, the minister for interior at the time, Jan Jambon (N-VA) claimed he'd never heard of the case, despite the local judiciary and police having informed the federal government of the case and the Slovakian ambassador asking him some pointed questions.
In all of these contacts between the various departments, it seems not one person ever got to see the video, or so it is claimed. It was released 2.5 years later by the victim's family, after it became clear that the judiciary was purposely letting dust settle over the files. Despite public outcry, the now minister-president of Flanders has not resigned, claiming zero responsibility, placing the blame first on the Charleroi police force and secondly his own cabinet. It is impossible, apparently, to know and recall everything, so goes the defence.
In the meantime, of course, there have been several revelations contradicting even these claims. Culpability seems to be hard to identify or in fact admit to.
Strangely, it appears that the N-VA, who recently collapsed the federal government a year early due to the emergence of evidence of a people smuggling ring led by Mechelen councillor Melikan Kucam(N-VA) and Theo Francken's cabinet (N-VA, then sec of state for migration and asylum), is likely to get away with purposely letting a murder case gather dust.
This is far from the first case where not-my-job-ism has reared its ugly head. When police shot at a speeding van full of refugees on the motorway, killing a four-year-old toddler in the process, the police, ministry and minister for the interior Jan Jambon(NVA) (amusingly translates to John Gammon) all came out with different stories, from communication issues to the parents for putting their child in a dangerous situation. Also, in the 400 days since the May general election, it appears that little effort has been undertaken in forming a government, and more on state reforms, leading inevitably to confederalism. With a crisis like Covid-19, you would normally expect the political agenda to be dominated by it, with parties jostling for position to lead the country through a crisis. Something strange has happened in Belgium, however. With Charles Michel departing the national stage for the European level, Sophie Wilmès found herself PM of a caretaker government as Belgium's first woman prime minister.
With the onset of the crisis requiring proactive measures to be taken, the caretaker government, consisting of a minority without N-VA was given unprecedented powers by means of confidence votes.
With a generally acknowledged bungled handling, Belgium hasn't fared well of late, and tensions are being inflamed. Nor have any of the figures involved made themselves particularly popular due to among other things the political decision to proclaim that masks are not effective against Covid-19 while supplies were low. Many other factors, like fraudulent mask deliveries and rigged contracts with ministers' friends have also contributed to this sorry state of affairs.
With the formation deadline of the 17th of September approaching and the threat of the far right sweeping into power in Flanders, the *formateur* contracted Covid-19, so the can was kicked yet another two weeks down the road.
Finally, on the first of October, after 680+ days of a caretaker government a government was formed without Flemish nationalists, consisting of a broad coalition consisting of the following parties: PS, MR, CD&V, Open VLD, Ecolo, sp.a and Groen. The coalition can thus be said to be broadly liberal, centrist and Green with a minority of Flemish Christian democrats, who had until recently refused to form a federal government without a Flemish majority of seats.
In the wake of this undoubtedly great (depending very much on who you ask) news, several disturbing revelations have come to the fore regarding Belgium’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, however.
Between 2015 and 2018, Maggie De Block (former minister for health) ordered the destruction of the nation’s entire strategic supply of FFP2 masks, with the reasons given being that they were supposedly past their sell-by date. Investigative journalism from the VRT’s version of the well known Panorama (renamed simply as Pano) uncovered evidence that the masks were both entirely suitable for use during the crisis, well made and stored and that furthermore the reasons given by the minister personally were that cost-benefit analysis had determined that further storage of the PPE supply built up under the previous government led by Elio Di Rupo would be more expensive than destroying them.
In ordering the entire consignment of PPE to the furnace, she effectively signed the death warrants of thousands of Belgian pensioners who were refused access to hospital treatment over fear of a runaway epidemic, despite there never at any single point being a shortage of hospital beds. Care home residents were left to die in understaffed wards, where employees were forced to come up with their own PPE solutions. In some cases, this led to Doctors without Borders being deployed to Brussels care homes. An unprecedented set of circumstances, given the complete lack of a hospital bed shortage nationally.
The only conclusion one can take away from this whole sorry debacle is that the leading motive for the Belgian government was not one of public safety in a post-SARS and MERS world, where experts had been warning of a worldwide pandemic for years, but one of cost savings. Considering Maggie De Block is a General Practitioner, this amounts to at least two levels on which she can be considered to have committed serious derelictions of duty.
With her fellow party member Alexander De Croo having been sworn in as prime minister only last week, however, it seems that justice for these quite frankly criminal acts isn’t even close to the horizon and the entire issue will be reduced to a political football during the next elections.
When questioned about the events which directly caused so many preventable deaths, Maggie De Block answered as follows:
‘It is what it is. I would be more than happy to take political responsibility, but not for the operational matters. Not for all the mistakes made along the way. If I had to do that for three departments, then you might as well ask me to mop the floors of the barracks where other items are stored too.'
The ‘not-my-jobism’ thus seems to be proven not to be only a problem with the Nationalist far right and fascist continuity parties (N-VA and VB respectively), but at the very foundations of this overcomplicated excuse liberal democracy. Where politicians make themselves personally responsible for ethical failures resulting from their broken political system, they should also be expected to step down, but no such sense of good grace is seemingly a prerequisite in this miserable excuse for a country.
There can be no justice until the eternal compromise which forms the basis for the Belgian state is finally destroyed, though the only parties currently likely to do so are also the very parties you would least want to achieve it and yet less likely to be any more successful in governing. With Flemish nationalism on the rise and the lone seemingly effective opposition to the ideological dangers it represents being the Belgian Workers’ Party (PTB-PVDA), one has to wonder whether it is even possible to combat the apathy apparently instilled in every Belgian from birth.
There are few true left wing movements and institutions left that haven’t rotted under the dual assaults of self-imposed pasokification and right wing attacks. There is a common Flemish saying which goes as follows. ‘It’s all the fault of the socialists’. Even if the statement is oft made ironically, the constant repetition has implanted a malaise in leftists all over Flanders. There is, within the main parties, no tendency to even attempt to combat this blatant mistruth. Christian Democrats and Liberals have more to gain simply by repeating the phrase. What hope is there while this is the case?
Truly, it seems that the Belgian impasse is far from over, even if the Nationalist parties are in opposition currently, polling figures have estimated their combined vote in Flanders at around 40-50%, leading to a situation whereby any future elections will be fought over splitting the country once more and yet another several years of waiting for the compromise to end all compromise governments to form.
With the future of the nation ever in peril and electoral politics within the rigid, complex state structure failing to come up with active solutions for everyday problems, the question remains whether this can ever be an effective means of governing a multi-lingual region. With citizen-led projects taking over the role of opposition to state supported megaprojects such as the mega mall Uplace, which was approved despite all expert advice to the contrary, there is clearly a need for further organisation on this front. Other successful examples of local groups influencing policy include forcing local authorities to consider more ecologically friendly solutions to traffic infrastructure, as in Antwerp. The direction in which we must seek our answers seems clear. It is the people and not the state who have their own best interests at heart.
Image by Dr Les Sachs on Wikimedia Commons
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