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Will Belgium's new government delays push the country to split?

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The Belgian flag flaps in the wind on the roof of the royal palace in Brussels.
The Belgian flag flaps in the wind on the roof of the royal palace in Brussels.   -   Copyright  Francisco Seco/Associated Press
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Calling a federal election in Belgium in recent years has inevitably involved putting the adjudicators of the Guinness World Records on high alert.

In December 2011, the country set a world record for the longest period without a government in peacetime, notching up 589 days without an elected government in place.

Incredibly, Belgium broke its own record in August this year following the collapse of then-prime minister Charles Michel's government in December 2018. The subsequent elections held in May 2019 polarised an already divided country still further along ideological lines with the far-right Vlaams Belang (VB) party topping the poll in Dutch-speaking Flanders and the far-left Workers' Party of Belgium (PVDA-PTB) surging in Francophone Wallonia.

Belgium's Janus-like identity has long been a hallmark of its politics with linguistic and ethnic differences becoming a source of antagonism which is unlikely to ever fully go away.

Rather than ending a political crisis, the contrasting election results prolonged it.

Today (Wednesday), after nearly 500 days of intensive negotiations, the programme for a government led by Flemish liberal Alexander De Croo was finalised between seven parties across Belgium's linguistic and political divide, including liberals, socialists, Greens and Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats - the so-called "Vivaldi coalition".

While the new government-in-waiting is fine-tuning its strings, it's unclear whether the arrangement will be music to many Belgians' ears.

“You need to engage people somehow to make democracy work, right? This is one of the dangerous implications of the whole episode because people become so fed up with it, they kind of turn their back to politics.
Dr Peter Bursens
Professor of political science at the University of Antwerp

Lack of credibility

One of the first orders of business for De Croo's new government will undoubtedly be grappling with the fallout of the global pandemic. Belgium has been the worst hit by the virus in Europe in terms of deaths per 100,000 population, ranking third globally.

According to Dr Peter Bursens, a professor of political science at the University of Antwerp, the government faces an even greater challenge: restoring faith.

“Obviously, the fact that it took so long [to form a government] has harmed, I think, credibility, trust and confidence in all the parties and all political actors that have been involved in this episode," he told Euronews.

"One of the most important things for this government will be to restore trust in government and politics in general, I think. Not only focusing on the ones in the majority in government, but also the ones in opposition because they have been, on several occasions, involved in trying to make a government."

While there is "a lot of continuity", Bursens said, between previous administrations and the government-in-waiting, the announcement of the new coalition has done little to dispel disquiet and some unrest in Flanders.

The Dutch-speaking parties going into coalition represent less than half of the Flanders electorate, a sticking point in some quarters.

In one of the more bizarre demonstrations, students from the youth wing of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) party protested in six university towns in the region by distributing condoms branded "F*** Vivaldi" in reference to the new coalition.

Linguistic cleavage

Government formation in this small country of just over 11 million is a carefully calibrated process. The finished product is often forged after stoking the hot coals of cross-community differences.

To bridge the regional and linguistic differences that span its 190-year history, Belgium has adopted a particularly complicated political system designed above all to placate.

The results of the 2019 election have, unlike previous polls, proven to be a lightning rod for regional grievances, not least claims that Flemish people are being disenfranchised by what they see as a lack of representation in the new government.

"There has been a narrative launched by the radical right parties, the nationalist parties. That’s it’s undemocratic, that there’s no majority among Flemish parties in the federal parliament," said Bursens.

"It is a narrative which I think is wrong, in a way, because there is no rule whatsoever in the constitution that in any way requires such a majority. You don’t even need a majority in government, you can even have a minority government," he continued.

"Belgium has always been a country with a lot of, let’s say, cleavages. The linguistic cleavage is one of them, which can be the most prominent in recent history. I think it is equally fair to stress it is not the only political cleavage that is running through the country."

“In my eyes, what is most important is that, the way the federal structures have been set up, the fact that parties are split and so on, this kind of overemphasising differences makes it very difficult to govern.”

As well as restoring trust in the federal system, the government now has an extra hurdle to jump over.

"It is up to the government to prove them wrong and make clear that the government can govern for the whole country," Bursens added.

Reform of the state

With such protracted coalition talks and often unstable governments becoming the rule rather than the exception in recent years, it is not inconceivable that the way the State runs will need to be changed.

“I am really convinced that the current federal structure is not working as you would hope it works," Bursens contends. "There are many ideas about that."

In countries like Spain and the UK, political, cultural and even economic faultlines are fostering increased support for independence movements in Catalonia and Scotland as a means to redraw the balance. For some in Belgium, too, the creation of separate states is the answer.

Bursens can see the appeal for Flemish nationalist parties like Vlaams Belang, which polled second in the region in the 2019 federal election. "Obviously, the nationalists’ ultimate objective is to split. There are sound arguments for it because it is far easier to govern more of a homogenous society and so on."

Despite the rising tide of nationalism, there has yet to be a clear majority supporting independence in Flanders. Even with Belgium in the grip of a political crisis, just 37 per cent of Flemish respondents in an Ipsos survey taken in December 2019 said they would vote to break up the country if an official referendum was held, compared to 14 per cent of Walloons and 17 per cent of Bruxellois.

It is, of course, just one vision for Belgium's future, the other being a recalibration of the existing federal structure.

“If you look at history, what has been done in terms of restructuring, the reform of the State has been very incremental," he says. "It’s a bit like the EU. In the end, you end up with a system that is very complicated so it’s a good idea to step back and see how we could organise society.”

“You could imagine another type of federalism, in the way that Germany works, for instance, and the way that relationships between federal and the sub-state level are organised.

Apathy

So, is there a viable future for a country so riven by differences? The answer lies in Belgium's nearly two-centuries-long history.

While each constituent part of Belgium borders on countries that speak the same mother tongue, the indifference of Flanders and Wallonia to the Netherlands and France respectively, born of foreign invasion by their neighbours and revolution to secure their freedom, has made the two unlikely bedfellows.

The biggest enemy of a federal Belgium is not the historic exploitation of the country's heterogeneity. It's also apathy.

“A lot of people have become indifferent, in a way. They have become detached from politics," concluded Bursens.

“You need to engage people somehow to make democracy work, right?

"This is one of the dangerous implications of the whole episode because people become so fed up with it, they kind of turn their back to politics. That would be a very grave situation, I think.”

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