Belgium’s endless identity crisis

 
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As it stumbles from one political crisis to the next, Belgium faces a profound existential threat. But can the slow disintegration of the Belgian state be reversed and, if so, how?

 

The caretaker government of Sophie Wilmès remains in place.
Image: Facebook page of Sophie Wilmès

Friday 25 September 2020

Back in 2011, Belgium made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the dubious achievement of going through the longest peacetime period without a government. Clocking in at 589 days, this was more than 200 days ahead of its nearest contenders, Cambodia (354 days) and Iraq (289 days).

This record appeared unbeatable… until now.

Last month, Belgium broke its own record. The country is still being run by a caretaker government because its squabbling parties have not managed to agree on a governing coalition. This is despite marathon negotiating sessions and a continuous stream of brave knightly politicians tasked by King Philippe to slay the dragon of political polarisation but who get their fingers burned instead.

Coalition negotiations have moved beyond the more common colour-coding conventions (purple-green,rainbow, etc.) to be dubbed the “Vivaldi coalition” in a nod to the Italian composer’s violin concerti Four Seasons.

Like Antonio Vivaldi, Flemish liberal Egbert Lachaert (who is the 12th politician to lead the consultations to form a coalition since the elections way back in May 2019), has had the unenviable task of composing an agreement that, while not music to the ears of any party, can at least get socialists, liberals, greens and Christian democrats on both sides of the country’s widening language divide singing from the same hymn sheet.

Just when it appeared that Lachaert may have hit the right notes and a full agreement, including the thorny question of who is to become prime minister, was expected to be sealed, COVID-19 struck, delaying the negotiations and throwing the situation back into disarray. This week, the king extended Lachaert’s mandate in the hope that differences between the would-be coalition partners could be ironed out.

Even if a coalition is successfully formed and takes over the reins of government, it is open to question whether such a broad alliance will be stable and survive till the next election, especially given the destablising effect of the deep socioeconomic crisis gripping Europe and the world.

If the government falls again, it will be the unfortunate culmination of Belgium’s second major crisis in less than a decade. This raises the question of what is behind this systemic failure.

One factor is the attempt to keep the far-right out of government. However, with the extremist Vlaams Belang performing strongly at the ballot box in 2019, maintaining this so-called Cordon Sanitaire (i.e. an exclusion zone around the far-right party) is proving harder than ever. The Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), which is one of the two largest right-wing parties in Belgium and part of the negotiations, has been openly questioning the Cordon Sanitaire.

Another major issue is the growing political gulf separating Belgium’s two main regions. Francophone Wallonia tends to vote for more leftist and progressive parties, while Dutch-speaking Flanders generally prefers more conservative and right-wing parties.

This ideological divide, combined with growing animosity between Flemish nationalists and Francophone socialists, means that a coalition between the other largest party, the Parti Socialiste (PS) and the N-VA, is almost unthinkable.

Such a constellation would also likely be unworkable. This is partly ideological. The PS is social democratic, supports the EU and believes in climate action, while the N-VA is free-market neo-liberal, Eurosceptical and downplays climate change. They also disagree fundamentally about the future of Belgium, with the PS believing in a united Belgium and the N-VA seeking to decentralise the country out of existence.

This growing polarisation has placed almost unbearable strain on the model of consensual politics, known colloquially as the “Belgian compromise“, that has so effectively defused tension and stopped conflicts from spinning out of control since the country’s founding in 1830.

In fact, the Belgian federal government has become so hollowed out, with decades of devolution effectively making regional governments more powerful, that many view the gradual death of Belgium as almost an inevitability.

As a naturalised Belgian citizen, I find this simmering disintegration of Belgium a shame – partly because I appreciate the eccentric appeal of this small multilingual, multicultural country.

Besides, although many believe that a country bringing together three official language communities (Dutch, French and German) is bound to fail the test of time and fall apart, I am convinced there is nothing inevitable about Belgium’s slow-burning implosion.

In my view, the country is falling apart not because of irreconcilable differences between its communities but as a result of a devolution process that has gone too far.

Belgium has had neither national parties nor national media for decades. Education, too, has been regionalised, as has, bizarrely, foreign policy. Even its prized healthcare system, one of the best in the world, has not been unaffected by this regionalisation, with nine ministers holding health-related portfolios.

This, rather than fundamental differences between Flemings and Walloons, has led to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts and a rise in distrust.

In reality, the difference between Belgium’s two regions are far smaller than the divergence between states and regions in larger countries, such as China, India, Russia or the United States.

In some ways, Walloon and Flemish Belgians – who are, as much as one can generalise about national characters, understated, reserved and do not take themselves too seriously – have more in common with each other than with the people with whom they share a language across the border.

This explains why, if Belgium were to split apart, Walloons would not support becoming part of France and Flemings are opposed to joining the Netherlands, judging by the anecdotal evidence I have seen over the years. Moreover, the two communities do not have pleasant historical memories of life under French or Dutch rule. In fact, Belgium was founded following a revolution by its predominantly Catholic population against the Protestant King William I of the Netherlands.

Instead, what is vastly more likely is that Flanders would become an even tinier independent state and Wallonia would keep the name Belgium and hope for future reunification.

The best way to halt the disintegration of Belgium and stop it from devolving into two irrelevant countries is to pursue a process of gradual reintegration that moves beyond the fossilised issue of language and looks towards the common interest of all Belgians.

A first step in that direction would be to reintegrate Belgium’s political system by reintroducing national parties. This would stabilise the volatile political system by making it easier to create coalitions, thereby reigniting the spirit of Belgian compromise.

Other steps would be to reintegrate the media, to help create greater awareness and understanding between the communities, and reform education so that every Belgian child receives full immersion in Dutch and French.

Belgium often strikes the outsider as quirky and surreal. But it makes no less sense as a country than any other and has, to its credit, avoided the kind of costly and destructive conflict that has brought other polarised societies to their knees. Let us hope that this sense of pragmatism and the country’s legendary capacity for “Belgian compromise” regain the upper hand.

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This is the updated version of an article which was published by Al Jazeera on 9 September 2020.

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Robust health systems are society’s first line of defence against pandemics

 
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Belgium has long been written off as a dysfunctional and failing state, yet its response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been surprisingly functional and successful. This highlights how effective healthcare acts as society’s immune system.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 6 May 2020

With its chronic, record-breaking inability to form governing coalitions and its crumbling federal government, Belgium has long been written off as a dysfunctional failure. Although the country is regularly described as a “surreal state” or the world’s most prosperousfailed state” in the foreign media, citizens have become increasingly resigned to the deadlock and the Byzantine machinations of the political elite, often joking that the country works better without a government.

When a COVID-19 epidemic broke out in Italy and threatened to spread across Europe, there were serious concerns that Belgium’s polarised parliament, fragmented government (the country has nine federal and regional health ministers) and minority caretaker government would prove ill-equipped to deal with the acute public health crisis hurtling towards the country.

Despite the political crisis paralysing the country, most of the squabbling parties decided to put public health above partisanship, exhibiting the pragmatism that Belgium used to be famed for. The parliament awarded acting Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, along with the National Security Council, enough emergency powers to tackle the looming crisis.

Wilmès, who was appointed to head the caretaker government in October 2019, has been thrust centre stage of the greatest crisis for generations. Her cool-headed, understated, calming and inclusive performance, which contrasts starkly with the erratic and bombastic style of her British counterpart Boris Johnson, has won plaudits, including from the normally sober and reserved Financial Times, though she has faced some domestic criticism for allegedly being too absent from the public eye.

The Belgian response has been so decisive and, to date, effective that it has taken many by surprise, not least the Belgians themselves.

So, what is behind Belgium’s relative success in handling the epidemic?

One important factor was the speed and timeliness of the response. Despite some early dithering, Belgium went into lockdown just in the nick of time. The unfolding calamity in Italy at the time focused minds and helped decide the undecided.

Another, and possibly the most crucial factor, was Belgium’s highly developed healthcare infrastructure, which, like a collective immune system, has bolstered society’s ability to fight off the virus.

Not only does Belgium’s health sector rank among the best in Europe, vitally, it already possessed a very high concentration of hospital beds and critical care units, enabling it to handle the huge growth in patients requiring intensive care with relatively few adjustments.

In fact, unlike quite a few other countries whose health systems are overwhelmed by the pandemic, Belgium has had plenty of spare critical care capacity throughout the crisis, even when the epidemic was at its peak.

The major weak point and failure has been nursing and residential homes for the elderly, where an initial shortage of testing kits meant too many cases went undetected. Of the nearly 8,000 deaths so far attributed to COVID-19 over half have been in care homes for the aged.

The way in which coronavirus casualties are recorded has placed Belgium near the top (for now) of the global league for COVID-19 deaths per million. However, as experts have explained, Belgium is the only country which currently records suspected deaths outside hospitals, which represent 82% of the recorded deaths in care homes. This inflates the death rate in Belgium compared with other hard-hit countries.

Other factors at play include the country’s high population density, its relatively old population and comparatively low levels of testing compared with the most successful countries like Germany and South Korea.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Around the world, lockdowns and social distancing are proving the most challenging measures to implement. Although Belgium has implemented what has been referred to as a “lockdown light”, crucially, it involved the closing down of all but the most crucial economic activities, which was not the case in Italy until late into the crisis.

It also allowed people some time outdoors, which appears to have been more successful than in some countries which imposed a full lockdown. This could be partly because allowing people to go out and exercise or walk responsibly is not only good for their health, but also gives them the chance to let off some steam, enabling them to stick to the other restrictions with greater ease.

And this has largely been the case. Despite some early reports of occasional “lockdown parties ” and some people escaping restrictions by crossing into neighbouring Holland, the public has generally and spontaneously abided by the social distancing rules with minimal need for policing, although the Easter weekend saw a spike in violations, raising fears at the time that this could lead to a new peak. That said, the public was sometimes ahead of the government, with many businesses and shops shuttering before the government officially ordered it.

Even though Belgium was already a society in which personal space was respected, seeing how quickly people have integrated social distancing into their daily routines is impressive. In the few shops that remain open, people were already standing and queuing well apart from each other before markers were put down on the floors. In open-air public spaces, people were also generally distancing themselves from other pedestrians.

Employing good democratic governance, persuasion and consensus-building, rather than coercion, has helped this widespread compliance, even if the far-right and Flemish nationalists have been making unhelpful noises. This has also been accompanied by a cross-partisan commitment to following scientific advice.

While certain politicians in other countries, such as US President Donald Trump, have tried to upstage or contradict scientists, effectively politicising the crisis, the Belgian government’s measured response has not only been led by science, but also relevant experts have often been given greater prominence in the media than political figures.

The daily press briefings delivered by virologist Steven Van Gucht of the National Crisis Centre have become essential viewing for ordinary Belgians. Fellow virologist and epidemiologist Marc Van Ranst has become an almost daily fixture in evening current affairs programmes, where he has explained the reasoning behind each new measure and discussed possible future developments.

Another essential ingredient in the success of these restrictions was the fact that Belgium is an affluent society with a decent, albeit worsening, social security and solidarity system.

The Belgian state, along with many businesses and organisations, decided pretty early on that preserving human life and preventing the uncontrolled spread of the virus was worth taking a major economic hit. Although this is causing hardship for many vulnerable people and smaller businesses, the shock is being softened by an emergency aid package that includes the deferment of tax, mortgage and bank payments, as well as giving workers in vulnerable sectors temporary unemployment benefits.

These efforts appear to be paying off gradually, with epidemiologists confirming that a downward trend is now in motion, leading to a gradual loosening of restrictions, which has proven a challenging undertaking that appears to be favouring restarting the economy over reviving social contacts, especially for children.

However, success still hinges on how well the population continues to stick to the rules, experts emphasise.

The situation in Belgium highlights the critical importance of investing heavily in healthcare and social safety nets in good times, not just during emergencies. One only hopes that once the pandemic is over, politicians, including in Belgium, will recall this lesson and boost investment in these increasingly neglected areas, despite the inevitable economic crisis which will follow.

What the case of Belgium and other wealthy European countries also underlines is that such a robust response to the pandemic is a luxury which poorer countries cannot afford if and when they are hit by this coronavirus.

This raises the urgent need for global solidarity. It is imperative that a global COVID-19 fund is established to help poorer countries deal with the medical and economic challenges posed by the pandemic, as well as a mobile rapid response “army” of medical professionals that can be sent to coronavirus hotspots as and when they appear.

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This is the updated version of an article which was published by Al Jazeera on 13 April 2020.

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