On July 21, Belgium celebrates its National Day. It commemorates the day in 1830 when a German prince living in England traveled to Belgium and swore allegiance to a constitution that a bunch of revolutionaries wrote after chasing out their Dutch rulers. Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld became King Leopold I, the first monarch and the first King of the Belgians.
July 21 is the day to celebrate the birth of modern Belgium and recognize a sense of unity amongst Belgians. But in the last 20 years, sharp political divisions and lack of cohesion at the federal level have increasingly made this small European nation feel like two separate nation-states. Which makes July 21 a relevant day to pose the question: Why is Belgium so divided?
Throughout almost its entire history, the Kingdom of Belgium has been fraught with a bitter linguistic divide, between the French-speaking Walloons in the south and the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north. There are also about 200,000 German speakers in a community off to the east. But they’re above the political fray and even started governing by direct democracy recently.
Most of Belgium’s political dysfunction today is due to the country’s fight over the dominance of language between the Walloons and the Flemish.
A Belgian history lesson
For most of its history, up until 1830, the region that is modern-day Belgium was largely French-speaking. When the territory was ruled by the French in the 18th and 19th centuries, they spoke and imposed French on the Belgians. The Flemish population resented this “enfrenchment” by the Belgian aristocracy and wouldn’t easily forget it in the years to come. When King Wilhelm I of The Netherlands ruled over Belgium for a short period after the French, he tried to promote the use of Dutch. The Belgian bourgeoisie clung to their French, however.
After Belgium became its own state in 1830, the Dutch-speaking Flemish fought for recognition of their language and culture. They felt looked down upon by the French-speaking upper classes and fought relentlessly for the use of Dutch as an official language in Belgium, alongside French.
By World War II, the Dutch-speakers in the northern part of Belgium had surpassed the southern French-speakers economically, having invested in innovation and bolstering up business. When the Walloons saw their influence waning, they agreed to an official barrier based on language.
The birth of Belgium’s modern federal system
By the 1960s, Belgium was officially divided into four language areas:
4. Bilingual Dutch-French (Brussels)
Recognition of official language areas wasn’t enough for the Flemish, however, who wanted more cultural autonomy as well. In the 1970s, Belgium therefore established the three Cultural Communities (known today as just Communities):
1. Dutch Cultural Community (which became the Flemish Community)
2. French Cultural Community (which became the French Community)
3. German Cultural Community (which became the German-speaking Community)
The Flemish got their cultural responsibilities, but the French needed their economic powers. So, in the 1970s-1980s Belgium created the Regions and gave them economic competencies:
3. Brussels Capital Region
Are you confused yet? It’s alright if you are because by the 1990s the Belgians got it all sorted out – mostly.
Belgium’s federal system today consists of Communities and Regions and each has been delegated different powers. On top of the Communities and Regions, there’s still the Belgian federal government. But Belgium doesn’t have as much power at the federal level as other countries with similar systems, which leads to disagreements and stalemates.
Belgium has a lot of governments
Because neither the Walloons nor the Flemish wants the other language group to gain influence over the other, everyone mistrusts a strong central government. Since Belgium created the Communities and Regions, they have been granted more and more responsibilities, such as managing agriculture, fisheries, foreign trade, education, health policy, and fiscal policy. So many levels of government handle different policy competencies in Belgium that the country actually has nine health ministers (some health ministers cover different Communities and some cover specific areas like university hospitals and access to the medical professions).
Spreading power so widely seems ideal when you’re trying to keep the peace between very different groups of people. However, this highly federalized system showed its major flaw – not taking swift action – during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Belgium’s political parties add another quirk to the system. There are no national-level political parties that represent all of Belgium. They only represent the two major linguistic groups. These party fault lines, along with the severe devolution of powers, account for Belgium’s divisions today.
Government deadlock over the years
Belgium’s sharp cleavages have, unsurprisingly, often lead to deadlock at the federal level. In fact, Belgium is a world record-holder in dysfunctional government. It set the record for a country going the longest without a functional federal government three times in 13 years.
The 2007 elections
Belgium set its first record for lack of federal government after the 2007 national elections. The Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south argued over the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde and whether to split it up. This first political crisis lasted 196 days before it was resolved.
The 2010 elections
The Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde issue came up again after the 2010 elections, this time prolonging negotiations for 589 days, allowing Belgium to break its own record. After a sixth constitutional reform of the Belgian state, the matter was finally solved.
The 2018 crisis and 2019 elections
Belgium’s most recent deadlock started in December 2018 and lasted over 600 days – officially making the country a three-time world record holder. Prime Minister Charles Michel’s majority coalition fell apart when the Flemish nationalist NV-A withdrew support over a UN migration pact. New coalition formation was postponed until the federal elections in May 2019. The results of the May elections were more polarized than anyone predicted, however. As a result, forming a new coalition was impossible until September 2020, when the current Vivaldi government finally came to power.
In 2011, Belgians made light of the gridlock and lack of government, making jokes and laughing it off. In 2020, amid a pandemic, the national mood was far less cheery about what has become routine dysfunction in Belgium.
The biggest obstacle to Belgium forming a federal government in 2019 and 2020 was the failure of Belgium’s two biggest political parties to come to an agreement. The Flemish nationalist NV-A and the French-speaking socialist PS tried and failed for months to see eye to eye. When the Vivaldi coalition finally formed, it excluded the two Flemish majority parties, the NV-A and the far-right Vlaams Belang. Leaving these two parties out sparked anger in Flanders and will likely not bode well for federal politics in Belgium in the coming years.
This week, there’s also been talk of the PS party and Ecolos (Greens) leaving the ruling coalition if the government doesn’t do something about the undocumented migrants who are on a hunger strike in Brussels to protest the slow and bureaucratic process of getting their residency permits (some have waited 10 years for their official immigration papers). So the Belgian government could fall apart again soon.
In 2011, there were serious talks about splitting up the Belgian state, with Flanders declaring independence and Wallonia joining France. Ultimately, such a drastic step wasn’t warranted. But the idea is resurfacing, especially among Flemish nationalists disappointed by the federal government’s COVID-19 response and exclusion of the Flemish majority parties from the ruling coalition.
Unity on Belgium’s National Day?
Belgium’s fragile union between the Flemish and the Walloons has endured for almost 200 years. The state has undergone several major reforms to produce a federal system that should please everybody. But recent events may have made Belgium more divided than ever. On the day celebrating unity and commemorating the Kingdom of Belgium – not Wallonia or Flanders, but Belgium – it’s worth pondering what the future holds for this European country.