A part from chocolate and beer, one of the major products exported from Belgium over the last two decades has been its constitutional model. It has not been copied elsewhere, at least not in its entirety (“Thank God,” some would say), but it has been studied in nearly every international circle concerned with institutional solutions for ethnically and linguistically complex societies, especially ones emerging from conflict. Bosniaks, Sri Lankans, Cypriots, Northern Irish, Sudanese, Israelis and Palestinians have all tried to understand how a society that is so profoundly divided, from a cultural and linguistic perspective, could replace the threat of violence with political dialogue and compromise.

Over the last five years or so, however, Belgium has moved from a model to be studied to a counterexample to be avoided. Defenders of federalism now mention Belgium with a hushed tone of embarrassment, as a sort of pathological cas d’espèce. What happened? And what can we learn from this evolution?

This is not the place to explain the mind-boggling constitutional framework Belgium has adopted over the last 35 years. Suffice it to say that Belgians – who invented surrealism and the bande dessinée – have shown a degree of constitutional creativity that is the delight of professors of comparative federalism and the nightmare of Belgian citizens, often unable to navigate their own system. For years, there was a tradeoff between political transparency and political compromises among the various components of the country. It sort of worked. Yet, the legendary capacity of Belgians to reach baroque political and constitutional compromises may now be stretched to its limits.

It took over nine months, following the June 2007 Belgian federal elections, for five political parties to agree on a minimum platform and form a coalition government.1 During the political paralysis, many feared that the country was on the brink of coming apart, whether deliberately or through a lack of will to reach new compromises. A number of committed federalists, while continuing to oppose the breakup of the country, abandoned their former reluctance to mention this eventuality. They deplored it, but acknowledged its likelihood. For many, it was a question of time (two, five, ten, fifteen years?). At this point, midway between the June 2007 elections and the next round of regional elections in 2009, it is difficult to assess whether the federation is in palliative care, in remission or just recovering from one of its many constitutional-reform-inducing crises.

The current problem in Belgium does not lie with its federal structure per se (though, as with any constitutional setup, it could be improved). It lies, rather, with constitutional arrangements and political developments that preceded the federalization process, which culminated in Belgium’s becoming officially federal in 1993. Belgians have superimposed a federal structure on preexisting constitutional compromises between Flemings and French speakers, which has led to a deeply polarized political and social landscape. The polarizing effect of institutions, along with Belgium’s key role in the European Union, provide much of the context for the Belgian drama. From all this, we can draw some limited lessons for other divided societies.

Institutions that crystallize divisions

Several features of the Belgian constitutional and political landscape help explain the high degree of polarization between the two main cultural/language groups: the Flemish (around 6 million) and the French speakers (around 4 million). This is not to suggest that institutions are the sole culprit, but they do contribute to the constant pitting of one group against the other.

Linguistically divided political parties

Starting in the late 1960s, every political party has split along linguistic lines. There is a French-speaking and a Dutch-speaking Liberal party. The same with the Socialists, Christian Democrats, etc. No single politician, including the prime minister, seeks votes on both sides of the linguistic border. All must be candidates in single-language lists.

This has had the effect of polarizing political rhetoric, often to a disconcerting degree. Even moderate candidates will radicalize their speech if they require votes from only one segment of the population. Pre-election partisan oratory games are divisive, and nearly always pit the Dutch-speaking north against the French-speaking south. It is often easy to blame the “Other” in such a context. Burundi, which was under Belgian rule from 1919 to 1962, learned a thing or two from its old colonial power2: no Burundian political party can run only Tutsi or only Hutu candidates.

A purely proportional electoral system and the need for coalition governments

Belgium has a purely proportional electoral system (as opposed to the mixed system in place in Scotland or Germany for example). This leads to a particularly fragmented political landscape and reinforces the division of each party along language lines. Any federal coalition requires at least four parties: two Flemish and two French-speaking. Today, Flanders is increasingly right of centre and autonomy-seeking while Wallonia and Brussels remain left of centre and opposed to significant further devolution to the constitutive units. In this context, putting together any coalition is extremely difficult.3

Polarized and reductive political debates

In Belgium, just about every public policy issue is analyzed through the prism of north-south opposition. In the French-language press and political discourse, the Flemish are often portrayed as right-wing xenophobes who have forgotten that until the 1950s financial transfers flowed from Wallonia to Flanders. In the Flemish debate, French speakers are frequently described as lazy, clinging to an obsolete socialist dream and dependent on financial transfers that now flow from the richer Flanders to Brussels and Wallonia.

This is not to deny that there are significant cultural and political differences among the Flemish, the Walloons and the inhabitants of Brussels (most of whom do not consider themselves to be either one). This is the whole point of institutional solutions to allow distinct policies in different contexts, and the very purpose of a federal system. Nor is this to deny that there are financial transfers, which raise issues of fairness, balance, fiscal responsibility and solidarity (as in any federal or quasi-federal system). It could be argued that, given the demographics of the country, opposition between north and south is largely unavoidable. Contrasts are par for the course in such a divided society, particularly one with a federal architecture. The main problem is that no one at the centre can counter this polarization, or cultivate a balanced view.

A weak federal government

Many divisions in central institutions themselves contribute to polarization. Since the 1970s, central institutions have been divided along linguistic lines. This division is among the compromises negotiated in the transition from a unitary state dominated by a French-speaking minority to one in which the Flemish majority gained significant power. These solutions are typical of consensus democracy in nonfederal countries. Some constitutional reforms, for example, require not only a two-thirds overall majority but also a simple majority in each of the so-called “language groups” in Parliament. The result is that every parliamentarian is “linguistically labelled.” Similarly, the constitution requires that the federal government be composed of an equal number of Flemish and French-speaking ministers.

These measures provide strong protection for the French-speaking minority (about 38 per cent of the population). But coupled with a relatively decentralized federal system, these “parity-based arrangements” now also contribute to overall polarization. They crystallise “mono-identities” and encourage radical political rhetoric.

Once a coalition government is actually in place, any significant reform in policy areas that have so far remained federal (such as justice, police, social insurance, large chunks of industrial and employment policy) is almost always out of reach. This fuels centrifugal tendencies by policy reformers, even those whose main concern is (or was) not initially “nationalist” or “autonomist.” The previous (Flemish) federal minister of social affairs, adhering to a Blairist Third Way approach, sought more “active” employment policies. This was strongly opposed by French-speaking members of the federal coalition, particularly the Socialists, who view unemployment insurance not as a conditional privilege but as a social right. Unable to achieve reforms at the centre, the Flemish federal minister joined the Flemish government and then pleaded for a “regionalization” of employment policy, so that reforms could at least be introduced in Flanders.

Any federal solution, whether it is a formal federal system or some other kind of unity/diversity arrangement, requires a balance between autonomy and common action. Belgium has come a long way toward autonomy. This part of the deal does not work too badly. Regions and Communities (the two forms of constitutive units in this original federation) function relatively effectively. The centre, however, is weak. In fact, one reason Belgium managed without a real federal government for over nine months is precisely that a large number of public policies are managed at the decentralized level and do not require the constant compromises inherent in central institutions. The federal government has become less and less significant in public life.

A divided civil society

A federal structure with significant powers granted to federated units, coupled with the rigid rules governing decision-making at the centre, has reduced common spaces of socialization. Flemish and French-speaking kids attend different schools – and study Belgian history from divergent angles. Flemish and French-speaking academics work more with their counterparts in Holland and France and with the rest of Europe than with each other. People do not read the same papers, listen to the same radio or watch the same TV programs. Eyes are turned to England and Holland in the north and often glued to France in the south. Knowledge of Dutch is slowly increasing among French speakers, whose bilingualism remains astoundingly limited. Meanwhile, knowledge of French in the Flemish community, which was high, is decreasing. Trade unions may be the last bastion of “federal” organizations (though they do have linguistic divides below the surface). With a few exceptions, cultural activities and even sports are divided along language lines.

What has Europe got to do with it?

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is the only officially bilingual region of the country. It is also hugely multicultural,4 primarily French-speaking and geographically an enclave within Flanders. At one time, Flemish dialects were dominant in Brussels, but state institutions located in the capital functioned only in French. This circumstance, combined with the international appeal of the French language in the 19th and early 20th centuries, led to its becoming a largely francophone city.5 This has created resentment on the part of Flemish nationalists who regard themselves as having “lost” Brussels. They would not easily “give up” the city in the event of secession. French speakers in Brussels, for their part, do not wish to be absorbed by Flanders if Belgium were to vanish. Brussels is the treasured property that keeps the fighting couple hanging on (for just a little longer …).

Brussels is also the capital of Europe.6 An option that keeps cropping up is to transform Brussels into some form of international city-state, or a European district along the lines of Washington, D.C. That is one way of disposing of an obstacle to divorce: make sure the other partner does not get it and give it to someone else! However, it is doubtful that the European Union would wish to administer a city, at least beyond the limits of the European Quarter in which its main institutions are located. Why would 27 countries want to deal with local schools, garbage collection or building permits?

Does the European Union make it easier, or more difficult, to achieve independent status for Belgium’s units? Again, no answer is fully compelling. On the one hand, transition costs would arguably be limited. Were Flanders to be admitted to the EU (and that is likely), the euro and common monetary policy would soften the landing. Furthermore, it is estimated that 80 per cent of Belgian legislation is already affected by EU norms. Continuity would be the rule. Some maintain that if Flanders were to declare its independence, international recognition would quickly follow. This belief is based on the rapid recognition given to Kosovo by many European countries, and by the barely contested declaration of independence of Montenegro before that. By contrast to North America, Europe has been the theatre of significant restructuring over the last 20 years. The appearance of yet one more country would not be earth-shattering.

On the other hand, it is one thing for France or Britain to recognize the fragmentation of former Yugoslavia, and quite another to see a close neighbour and founding member of the EU fall apart. Fears of the slippery slope abound (what next? Catalonia? Scotland? the Basque Country? Padania?). And what message is being sent when it is the rich and powerful that skip ship, partly to escape financial transfers inherent in their current constitutional setup?7

Pragmatic Flemings (and that tends to be a cultural trait among them) would rather renegotiate from within Belgium, gradually depriving federal authorities of most of their powers. This “empty-shell” strategy is far less likely to irk important trading partners. Why rock the boat when you can have similar results without provoking major diplomatic reactions?

It may be quite surprising to Canadians but, despite the significant likelihood of Belgium’s disintegration, secession is hardly ever promoted directly. There is no official program for an independent Flanders, no equivalent to Jacques Parizeau’s financial strategies for the economic transition toward statehood. How can the end of Belgium be so plausible, and yet so little advocated?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the main separatist party is xenophobic and extremely right-wing. Many Flemish nationalists do not want to associate with the Vlams Belang.8 Beyond this fear of bad company, Francophones are often left wondering, “What will they want next?” This is reminiscent of the scepticism with which English-speaking Canadians from the 1960s onward posed the question “What does Quebec want?” For their part, Belgian French speakers have a tendency to dramatize every Flemish claim for more autonomy as excessive, navel-gazing, petty. Echoes of the Canadian dialogues de sourds

There is, of course, a major difference between the Canadian and the Belgian centrifugal dramas. The power balance between those who seek greater autonomy and those who resist is reversed. In Belgium, the resistance to change on the part of the francophone minority may become anathema to the rich majority who may simply no longer want to play the game. Hence we increasingly hear, from both sides of the country, “Not necessarily divorce, but divorce if necessary.” In the end, secession, or some form of weakly agreed breakup of the country, may occur, but it will occur less through political design than through accident or lassitude.

Something that is not heard, or even hinted at, is a desire by neighbouring countries to recoup some territory (Flanders being annexed by Holland, or Wallonia by France, or the small German-speaking area by Germany). There is a marginal “rattachiste” movement in Wallonia, which promotes this reconnection with the mother country. It finds no echo in France, and Germany would likely react negatively to such a move. There is no equivalent movement in Flanders: while sharing a language, the Flemish (of Catholic culture) and the Dutch (primarily Protestant) tolerate each other, but do not share fraternal feelings. In the event of Belgium’s breakup, the 70,000 German-speakers are more likely to seek a special arrangement with independent Wallonia, or with neighbouring Luxembourg, than with Germany. The last option would likely lead to their losing significant autonomy.

Lessons of the Belgian experience

While no longer the beacon of political accommodation that it was once held to be, Belgium should not be removed from the radar of comparative studies. The Belgian experience offers important lessons to divided societies, especially those composed of two main cultural, language or religious groups. Let me briefly outline three.

First, conflict-resolution solutions that are effective at a particular time may need revisiting after a few decades. In the Belgian context, reform of the political and electoral system would be first on my list. This, of course, is hugely challenging, given the weight of history, vested interests and the gradual conversion of political compromises into myths and taboos.9

Second, various institutional measures – including vetoes, guaranteed rights of participation, autonomy – may be crucial to reverse past injustice or to guarantee the vitality of a minority. However, minority-protection measures which have the effect of fostering and strengthening “mono-identities” are likely to create greater divisions in the future.

Third, it is crucial that increased autonomy for a minority group or a federated entity be accompanied by bridge-building measures. Increased autonomy for components of a divided society can resolve tensions by removing the need for constant compromise. Increased autonomy can also contribute to a sense of security in communities – be they numerical minorities or previously oppressed or marginalized majority groups. But building autonomy without bridges, particularly if the “centre” is itself fragmented, can be a recipe for more conflict. These bridges can range from exchanges of students or civil servants to institutionalized cooperative organs. When divisions are largely based on language, learning each other’s language – while never enough – will have symbolic as well as communicative impact.

Belgium remains a relatively rich country, steeped in the rule of law and largely allergic to violence. In different contemporary post-conflict contexts, however, Belgian solutions could be explosive. Some Belgian institutions are truly innovative and can represent effective medicine in conflict-prone societies. But their cumulative effect, without due concern for dialogue-building measures on a large scale, could end up killing the patient.


1 In the meantime, the previous coalition and prime minister remained in place to deal with “current affairs.” Hence, the country was not truly without a government, but without one which could, well, govern, rather than simply attend to bare essentials.

2 Officially, Belgium had a “mandate” from the League of Nations and then from the United Nations to govern Burundi (and Rwanda). For our purposes, the colonial analogy will do.

3 The coalition government which finally emerged nine months after the June 2007 election is composed of the Flemish Liberals (VLD), the French-speaking Liberals (MR), the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), the French-speaking “Humanists” (successors to the Christian Democrats, CDH) and the French-speaking Socialists (PS). The Flemish Socialists refused to join the coalition. 
A wide coalition was required to allow for a new round of constitutional decentralization (which requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament). Every Flemish party insisted on the necessity of such reforms.

4 Recent statistics show that half the children born in Brussels have non-Belgian mothers.

5 It is estimated that around 80 to 90 per cent of Bruxellois use French as the common language of communication. As a result of a complex political compromise dating from the early 1960s, the census must not, by law, contain questions concerning the use of language. It is ironic, of course, that a state architecture built almost entirely on linguistic divisions ignores the sociodemographics of language.

6 Unofficially, that is. Legally, it is only the “seat” of its main institutions.

7 The irony may be that were it to become independent, Flanders, as one the richest regions of Europe, would likely have to increase its EU contributions to eastern Europe. What Wallonia would no longer get through intra-Belgium transfers, Romania might receive. Whether this would be more palatable to the Flemish, given the lack of historical resentment toward the Romanians, is an open question.

8 “Flemish interest.” This may explain why, in the wake of the last federal election, no party supported a motion introduced by the Vlams Belang calling for a referendum on Flemish independence.

9 That being said, a proposal for the creation of a limited “national” riding is gaining official support. It would allow for 15 of the 150 members of the Lower House to be elected by voters across the country (they would thus require support from both Flemings and French speakers). While the 10 per cent mark is low, it is believed (or hoped!) that the political and moral weight of candidates for this riding would serve as a bridge-building measure.