Economics trumps language in Belgium

For most of the last six years in Europe, political debates have generally gravitated toward economics: what to do about the economic crisis, youth unemployment, austerity vs. stimulus, bailouts, the fate of the euro, possible default in Greece, and so on.

This was the year that all that was supposed to change. The economic recovery, although still fragile, seems to have taken hold, and new, non-economic issues have gripped the public imagination: a new Cold War with Russia, refugees from the fracturing Middle East, self-determination for Scotland and Catalonia, even the love life of the French president.

But in Belgium, long known for the way that ethno-linguistic division dominates the political agenda, things have shifted the other way. Its new government is based on a common approach to economic policy, not to language.

The Belgian general election was held on 25 May (here’s my preview), and produced the usual fragmented parliament; 13 parties were represented (six each Dutch- and French-speaking, plus an integrated Marxist party). Negotiations on the formation of a new government then proceeded at a leisurely pace, finally reaching an agreement last week – a big improvement on 2010-11, when the process took a year and a half.

The new prime minister, who was sworn in on Saturday, is Charles Michel, the leader of the French-speaking liberal party, Mouvement Réformateur. The other three parties in the coalition are all Dutch-speaking: liberals, Christian democrats and, for the first time, the Flemish separatist party New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). Between them the four have 85 of the parliament’s 150 seats, although only 20 of the 63 seats in the French-speaking area.

This was the second election running in which NV-A had emerged as the largest party, but last time the mainstream parties combined to exclude it from government. Since then, however, constitutional revision has taken some of the sting out of the linguistic issue, and NV-A – while retaining its theoretical commitment to Flemish independence – has focused more on economic matters.

And that turned out to be the key thing when it came to assembling a government. Belgium has some of the highest tax rates in Europe, and tax reductions were a big campaign issue. There are also plans for raising the retirement age and streamlining the public sector to cut government spending.

That provided the basis for four basically centre-right parties to agree on a common program, despite their rather different views about the country’s constitutional future. It means that both social democrat parties are in opposition for the first time in 26 years.

Perhaps this is an indication that the economic crisis is still not over, and that European voters, dissatisfied with all the remedies offered so far (and many countries have done a lot worse than Belgium), are still looking for change.

Or perhaps it just means that Belgium, already a unique country in so many ways, is again bucking the trend.

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