North vs South in Belgium

Belgium is coming up towards the first anniversary of its last election, which is yet to produce a permanent government. As I explained a few weeks ago, the best its politicians have been able to do, even under the stimulus of the Covid-19 crisis, is to invest its caretaker government with full powers on a temporary basis – in effect, to pretend it’s a real government for the period of the crisis.

Belgium has been hard hit by Covid-19 – its infection rate per capita is one of the world’s worst. But like the rest of western Europe, it appears to be past the peak and is starting to relax some of the control measures adopted to deal with it.

Hopes had been entertained that the crisis would create a new sense of common purpose in the country’s political leaders and induce them to work together to form a majority government. But so far it doesn’t look likely. As Barbara Moens reports at Politico, “politicians are finding that the old political crisis is more virulent than ever.”

Why is the Belgian situation so intractable? A first pass at describing the problem is to say that the two halves of the country voted in dramatically different ways, so that any government with a reasonable degree of ideological coherence would have to rest overwhelmingly on the support of just one half, and therefore be seen to lack legitimacy in the other.

So, for example, a coalition of seven liberal, Green and social democratic parties would have an overall majority with 78 of the 150 seats, representing in aggregate 46.7% of the vote. But 49 of those seats would be from the French-speaking south (Wallonia plus Brussels), where those parties won two-thirds of the vote; in Dutch-speaking Flanders they won only 34.1% between them.

Conversely, one could imagine a government led by the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which is politically on the right, and supported by the far right, the centre-right and most of the liberals. That would have a bigger majority, with 86 seats. But 67 of them would be from Flanders; in the south, it would represent only 34.9% of the vote.

Those are far from the only possibilities; many different majority combinations can be constructed on paper. But all have the same fundamental problem: either they will align much more with one half of the country than the other, or they will be so ideologically disparate as to be unlikely to survive.

But even this need not be fatal. Many countries have geographically polarised voting patters but still manage to survive; compromises can be made, differences can be papered over. The real problem in Belgium is what the two halves differ about, and which way they are going.

The N-VA, at least in principle, is committed to Flemish independence. Its voters are sick of what they see as freeloading by the south; Flanders produces most of the wealth of the country, and many of its people would prefer to keep it for themselves rather than share it around. So the N-VA argues for greater autonomy and a further weakening of federal institutions.

But the N-VA is also threatened on its right flank: the big movement in last year’s election was the rise of the far-right Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest: also pro-independence, but much more populist, Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant. It won 11.9% of the vote, and 18.6% in Flanders; opinion polls now show it with more than double that.

So the electoral tide in the north seems to be running strongly against co-operation with the south. If Belgium goes back to the polls it looks as if the N-VA and the Flemish Interest would win a clear majority of the Flemish vote between them, and the former is afraid to moderate its policies for fear of losing more ground to the latter.

But in the south, things are going the other way. Its far-right party, the People’s Party, managed only 3.2% of the Walloon vote last year and lost its only seat (it has since dissolved). The Greens and the far left picked up seven seats each.

Unlike Flanders, the south has little national feeling of its own; there has never been much of a movement either for Walloon independence or for union with France. The French-speakers identify more as Belgian, and despite being in the minority they ran the country largely as their own until the second half of last century.

A split would be deeply traumatic, not least due to the problem of the status of Brussels. Historically Dutch-speaking, the capital is officially bilingual but now overwhelmingly Francophone, and surrounded by suburbs that are also French-speaking even though nominally located in Flanders.

There’s something disturbingly symbolic in the government of the European Union being located in a city that thus straddles the north-south divide and is a bone of contention between the wealthy Germanic north and the poorer Mediterranean south. Belgium is actually symptomatic of a wider problem.

EU prime minister Ursula von der Leyen warned yesterday that temporary rules to help member states deal with the health crisis have unintentionally led to “an unlevelling of the playing field,” with the wealthier northern countries able to subsidise their own businesses while at the same time resisting a more generous rescue package for the hard-hit southern economies.

And at the same time, as Daniel Kelemen and Jacob Soll argue, EU money continues to flow in structural and investment funds to autocratic governments in central Europe, even as they thumb their noses at the requirements of democracy and the rule of law. In their words, “A Union that imposes austerity on democrats while it subsidizes autocrats sets itself on a road to perdition.”

Kelemen and Soll may be too hung up about austerity, but the basic point is absolutely right: the wealthier countries need to stop thinking so much about their short-term economic interests and give more attention to repairing the EU’s democratic foundations and fortifying it as a barrier against authoritarianism.

Just as one of the EU’s founding members finds itself badly in need of greater understanding between north and south, the same division threatens the cohesion of the EU itself.



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