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Breaking the silence: the future of power-sharing in Belgium

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02 February 2021
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Covid-19 has not only served as an umpteenth demonstration of many of the challenges and difficulties of power-sharing in Belgium, it has also highlighted the increasingly problematic lack of a solid debate on the Belgian federation. With a seventh state reform in the pipeline and with all involved endorsing the need for solid reforms, it is time to break the silence and embark on a fundamental debate on power-sharing in Belgium – and its future.

Governing divided Belgium is not a walk in the park. Its very complex and peculiar federal system is the result of a hard and ongoing process of six state reforms, the first of which was initiated in 1970. With its 50th anniversary in sight, the Belgian federation was struck by a challenge of unprecedented nature: Covid-19. Rather than ‘exposing’ the problematic nature of power-sharing in Belgium, this global virus has served as the umpteenth demonstration of many well-known problems and challenges that have burdened Belgian politics for years.

Firstly, and most evidently, the increasingly difficult task of finding a solid federal cabinet. It was only 494 days after the May 2019 elections, and 240 days after the discovery of the first Belgian Covid case, that a ‘definitive’ federal cabinet was found. This lingering cabinet formation adds to the quite recent trend of exceptionally long post-electoral difficulties, of which the record-breaking cases of 2007 (194 days) and 2010 (541 days) are notorious examples. While they should not be considered as scapegoats (as many other factors are at play), it is evident that institutional and ethnolinguistic tensions play a major role in explaining these difficult formations.

Secondly and related, debates on the composition of the resulting cabinets expose the thorny issue of language-group representation. Although the Belgian constitution forces Dutch-speaking and French-speaking politicians to cooperate (at least one party of each ‘side’ has to be included in the federal cabinet), it does not require the federal cabinet to be majoritarian on ‘both sides’. From a historical perspective, cabinets with a minority on either side are not exceptional. But recent experiences have fueled frustrations and the saliency of this issue of representation. Cabinets without a Flemish majority (2008-2014) were followed by a period with only one French-speaking cabinet party (accounting for only 25% of francophone votes; 2014-2018). And after a troublesome period of minority cabinets with majorities on neither side (2018-2020), the current cabinet once again lacks a Flemish majority (2020-…). Indeed, for the first time in post-war history, neither of the two largest Flemish parties is included in the federal cabinet. Such imbalances are always delicate, but even more so when the political stakes are at their highest (as they currently are).

Thirdly, in many ways the notorious complexity of the Belgian system has impeded a solid and assertive response to the challenge at hand. The Belgian tango between institutional engineering and compromise politics has resulted in a puzzling system of four language areas, two types of sub-states, several committees and platforms for coordination, a chaotic distribution of competences, and most importantly: a notoriously wide range of exceptions. Hence, Belgian politics often marches to the beat of its own grinding gears. Although the initially very unclear puzzle of players and competences (who is competent for which policies and decisions?) appears to have been solved to some extent, the blurry range of players and institutions continues to cast its shadow on the politics of Covid management. Attempting to tackle the crisis more elegantly, the choice has been to turn the intergovernmental Concertation Committee into the heart of Covid policymaking. It hosts the federal and sub-state cabinets and provides them with a veto right (implying that the sub-states now even having a final say in some exclusively federal competences). Yet, despite this quite confederal-like approach, the sub-states have not escaped the shadow of the centre. The latter truly stands in the spotlight and confidently opts for a pro-Belgian tone, emphasizing the importance of coordinated measures and the strength of the ‘team of 11 million Belgians’.

These are but some of the many challenging dynamics at play. If anything, they highlight the institutional identity crisis in which Belgium is stuck and the need for a fundamental debate on its future. However, the past years have been characterized by a disturbing silence. This has left many of the most crucial questions unanswered. Which competences should pertain at which level and why? What about the linguistically split party families, and what role should the language groups play at the federal level? What form should power-sharing take? Should the 1970 system of alarm bells, special majorities, and linguistic parity in the council of ministers be amended or abandoned? Is it important for federal cabinets to be majoritarian on both sides, and should this be constitutionally anchored? What pre-electoral incentives can foster post-electoral cooperation? Is it important for socio-cultural entities to overlap with institutional borders, and if so, should political structures be adapted to the reality of societal divisions, or should we try to bridge the linguistic gap and foster societal cohesion (Belgian nation-building)? Or should we abandon the nationalist ideal of overlapping socio-cultural and institutional entities altogether, and fully embrace the idea of a ‘divided’ state? Is Belgium an end in itself, or merely a means to an end? And most importantly: what is the ideological basis for the answers to these questions? What is the philosophy behind one’s views and blueprint?

The time has come to embark on this discussion. The questions at stake go to the very heart of politics (the societal basis and practical organization of democracy), and they will become increasingly pressing as the processes of Europeanization and globalization go on. There is a widespread consensus on the sub-optimal nature of the current Belgian system. And for the first time since 1970, parties hold different views on the very direction of state reform, as several of them have started to embrace forms of centralization (recentralization of competences, a federal electoral district, etc.). Meanwhile, a 7th state reform is planned to take shape after the 2024 elections. The result is a major paradox. Never has it taken more time to produce a next state reform, none of the parties agree with the existing system, and the room for debate has widened substantially. But in spite of this very fertile context, a profound debate on power-sharing in Belgium is yet to start. Failing to foster such a debate comes at a price. Evidently, it impedes voters from making a substantial choice and from holding politicians accountable. It also increases the change that the inevitable 7th state reform will be anything other than the next complicating chapter in Belgium’s cluttered history of federalization, impeding the opportunity to weather the next storm (whatever it will be) with a more stable and solid ship. The context is fertile and pressing. It is time to break the silence and give these issues the attention they deserve.

Maxime Vandenberghe

Maxime Vandenberghe is a FWO PhD fellow at the Department of Political Science at Ghent University (2019-2023). He holds a master’s degree in Political Science - Belgian politics (2018, Ghent University). His main research interests are federalism, regionalism, and party politics, with a particular focus on Belgium. The goal of his PhD study is to map and explain communal conflicts and conflict solutions in Belgian politics (1979-2019). He cherishes foggy fields and wagging tails.

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