BHV or B-HV, that's the question....or why the Belgian governments keep failing

The world press was present in Brussels last Thursday since we'd be one of the first countries voting a law to prohibit burqas. It was the European headline on CNN & BBC. But we never voted the law as instead our prime minister went to the king to resign his government. The king had anticipated the crisis and had cancelled his plans while he was waiting for Yves Leterme to come. It's only the 5th time in 3 years that this scenario was happening. (see the saga here).
Our king assigned some consulting politicians who needed to cool down the situation and see if there was still room for negotiations before he accepted the stepping down of the government.
Today the assigned politician stepped down failing in that role as well and the government fell this time for real.

So is there a war as The Independent stated last week? No!
After half a year without a government (2007) and 4 government switches since that moment, our lives don't stop anymore at yet another political crisis in our country. The sad thing is that we're still fighting about the same thing. Despite many bold statements, deadlines, tactics & negotiations we seem to be in a deadlock over BHV.


Well in Belgium there's different cultural & linguistic groups ( more background in my old post here). Then you must make choices as a country how to organize your administration and relationship with your citizens. Usually the territorial principle ensures that withing a defined territory one government agency is entitled to rule. In the first part of the 20th century all towns in Belgium had to organize a "language count" every 10 years which determined if the town was considered as French or Dutch speaking. This was the base of communication by the government in that area and that could switch every 10 years. In some towns this system caused switches back & forth and the necessary discussions when counts were contested. Especially the region in and around Brussels was becoming more and more French speaking, although traditionally a Flemish region, an evolution that a pro-Flemish movement hoped to stop.

In 1963 a compromise was found in drawing a formal language border across Belgium trying to make most provinces unilingual and therefore reducing administrative complexity. Some towns shifted from province and several got special "facilities" for the minority group in that town including 6 towns around Brussels. Brussels itself was the only region in Belgium with an official bilingual status as an island in the Flemish region.

From the very start however the 2 groups had a different vision on this point. For the Flemish Dutch speaking in the north, the language border is a state border. The territorial principle was in the constitution and determined that in the north all official communication was in Dutch. The creeping French expension had been stopped and the facilities around Brussels were to be seen as temporary measures to help the French speaking minority to integrate and adjust and learn Dutch in the transition period. For the Wallonians all of this isn't so strict and the right to speak your own language is primary above all.

And there it is: the seed of ongoing political instability.

Belgium evolved in the last 40 years to a federal state with extensive regional powers, several regional governments and a shift in economical weight from the south to the north. The process has taken quite some hick-ups (and governments resigning so hey....we are used to it in some way) but always ended in a compromise with give and take on both sides. This federalism stressed the importance of the language border even more.
The Frenchification of Brussels continued and expended into the towns around Brussels (although even French is becoming a minority language due to the expansion of many international immigrants). The mandatory Dutch nature of these (with mandatory city councils in Dutch, voting ballots in Dutch, ....) has truly become rather forced and unnatural in a couple of them.

Politically & juridically Belgium is divided in voting districts and those also match this territorial principle: in Flanders dutch speaking political parties can form lists and get Wallonian french speaking political parties can form lists and get elected and then they all form a coalition with a regional majority in the parliament and federal government.

But here's the catch: the political district in the center of Belgium is an exception and includes Brussels+ the Flemish towns (eg Halle & Vilvoorde) around it (=BHV, Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde) a bit of bilingual region and a bit of Dutchspeaking region. Which means that in the "Flemish towns" around Brussels, the people can vote on French speaking politicians. And those defend their rights and therefore reinforce the French expension in and around Brussels. (what is almost never mentioned is that the Flemish around Brussels also can vote on the Flemish candidates within Brussels and top up their votes in a primarily French speaking area despite the bilingual status). On top of that our constitutional court has ruled in 2004 that this situation must change as it prohibits that all Belgiums are equal to the law (and only can vote following the territorial principle). So BHV must get split into Brussels and Halle/Vilvoorde as a concentric Flemish district around Brussels. And this must be done before the next federal elections or they might be ruled unconstitutional.

The Flemish around Brussels feel threatened by the the French speaking unwilling to speak their language, to adapt, to apply the law. They reason that if you consciously move to Flanders, you also must learn the language and adapt. Extending the facilities or expanding the borders of the bilingual Brussels is out of the question. They feel they must defend the Flemish nature and are victims of the French arrogance.

The Wallonian feel threatened by the growing Flemish nationalism. They feel bullied around Brussels, the rights of a minority disrespected with demands that are far away from all reality. They want to connect with Brussels or have a territorial "corridor" with Wallonia to have a link with their roots as being trapped in a Flemish territory without connection to their 'compatriotes' would be their nightmare.

And there you have all ingredients for 3 years of political disputes, threats, deadlines, negotiations, bold statements and immobilized governments.
  • Some Flemish political parties do not want to negotiate as BHV simply needs to get split without any compromise. It's the law and nothing more. So they put it on the agenda of the federal parliament and we could vote it with a majority of all Flemish against all Walloon.
    (Oh wait a moment, we have already done so 2 years ago and it let to no solution since we have a lot of protection measures to prevent one cultural group bullying laws over the other one. So all political parties claiming we "only need 5 minutes of political courage" and that we'll vote in a couple of days are just fooling their voters. It is only a guarantee of longer political chaos, with the vote being put on hold, transformed to the government who has to find a solution...which they've not managed to do in 2-3 years.)
  • Some Flemish political parties say that the only solution is to negotiate until we find a compromise. That's true. But how much patience do we need to have? How much patience can we have? How much counter demands can we accept?
    None of them dares to sell out their voters by accepting Brussels growing larger, by assigning more budget to Brussels, by giving the minorities of the French speaking the right to vote in Brussels rather than in their newly split off Flemish district, by no longer letting the Flemish government approve the mayors of the problematic towns, .... All of them made such bold statements that none of them can agree upon any of these counter agreements without losing their face. And electoral gain seems more important right now than finding a solution.
  • Most of the Walloon political parties say they want to negotiate and are willing to split BHV...but they are throwing a long list of counter demands on the table. A huge list. And they drag and drag the negotiations endlessly because the status quo isn't really an issue for them. Why are the Flemish fussing so hard anyway? And how dare they to claim they want a solution whereas at the same time they set negotiation deadlines. A good compromise takes time.
    (Hmm...would 3 years of ongoing discussions, work groups, mediators, ... not be enough time?)
And so a dozen of smaller towns circled around Brussels have become a symbol of Belgium. The unability to find any compromise, not even on the method how to tackle this issue has become the symbol of a paralysed government. And as long as this issue is outstanding, they can't focus on any other issues.

Talk about an impasse. Now that the government crashed once again the different political parties aren't even sure if we can organize new elections or not (not surprisingly those parties who fear the result claim there is no way we can organize new elections now since they will be unconstitutional, ....the others say that an emergency law or a validation by the parliament will do the trick).

I don't know what will happen. New elections probably will create a bigger polarization as I fear the most extreme points of view will gain the most votes...making the new coalition forming rather hopeless again. When I read the comments below many news articles online, I often feel sick. All sense of nuance seems to be gone while demagogy rules.
Yet the new elections would have one great benefit: there would theoretically be no new elections in 4 years and the cycle of regional & federal elections would fall together enforcing symmetrical coalitions at all levels and preventing the schizophrenic position some political parties now find themselves. That would be a great step forward at least.
A new generation of politicians that have not burnt themselves and that dare to be realistic or progressive (not to strangle a 'European capital' by unrealistic language laws out of nostalgia to something that is lost anyway?) yet would be great too, but I guess I'm dreaming on that point. A country where all citizens are so respectful to become bilingual is probably an illusion too. I don't feel much optimism tonight.


Lilacspecs said…
Well, you certainly sum it up very well. I'm sorry it's leaving you feeling so upset. I really just don't get the whole conflict at all. I mean, okay, I do, but I come from a place that would probably address the issues in a much more...aggressive way. So I just don't get why everyone keeps talking circles around everything.
Snooker said…
Wow, thanks for the explanation. Very interesting back story as well.
marion said…
I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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