A flaemic independence is likely in the future

After the sixth state reform
Federal Belgium

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Author: Angela Ostlender

In the 1960s, the open conflict between Walloons and Flemings threatened the political cohesion of Belgium again and again. In order to do justice to the different interests, the parties to the dispute decided to gradually transform Belgium into a federal state structure, which began in 1970.

The territories of the French-speaking Community of Belgium

TUBS; CC0; Wikimedia Commons

In the course of the considerations for a further state reform, the question also arises as to how the German-speaking community could develop further. Even if she never had any explicit intentions for autonomy, she benefited from the transformation of Belgium into a federal state. It was also given its own parliament, government and corresponding responsibilities.

Ostbelgien is characterized by a high level of education as well as the consistent implementation of multilingualism and a solid economic situation with a balanced budget and comparably low unemployment figures. In the meantime, the German-speaking Community has acquired further competencies on the basis of bilateral agreements with the Walloon region, to which it belongs within the framework of regional areas of responsibility, including the important economic factor tourism (e.g. the right to designate tourist infrastructure). Demands for the transfer of additional instruments for regional policy such as spatial planning, regional housing and road construction and energy are on the table and should be negotiated by the end of 2018. If one looks at the new competences of the German-speaking community, not much is missing for the autonomous unit, which, like Flanders, unites regional and community competences "under one roof" and thus far exceeds the statute of a pure language community. At the end of a future state reform, a complete separation of the German-speaking area from the Walloon Region and its elevation to the fourth Belgian member state with equal rights alongside Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels could stand.

Brussels: The Gordian Knot

With a view to the Belgian super election year 2019 and future state reform plans, the strategies of the Flemish parties N-VA and CD&V (Christian Democrats) are particularly relevant. For both parties, Brussels is first and foremost the Flemish capital, where they want to strengthen Flemish influence. Current election forecasts for the upcoming local elections in October 2018 confirm the good prospects for the incumbent governing parties (in addition to the two mentioned, the Flemish and Walloon Liberals). Certainly, the local polls will provide a mood test for the 2019 national parliamentary elections.

"Ostbelgien", areas of the German-speaking community of Belgium.

DUBS; CC0; Wikimedia Commons

The fact that there is still no concrete proposal for the next state reform is mainly due to the complex situation in Brussels. The state headquarters is the seat of numerous international and EU institutions as well as NATO. At the same time, Brussels is also the Flemish capital, although only about one percent of the residents belong to the Dutch language community. Most of the almost 1.2 million Brussels residents feel they belong neither to the Flemish nor to the Walloon region. As a compromise, the city was given the status of a bilingual capital city region, whereby a complex network of political competencies has developed. Not least because of this and in the course of the dynamic growth of the Brussels metropolitan region, calls are growing louder to finally adapt the institutional structures to the changed framework conditions. Among other things, the transfer of political competences for education and culture (the so-called "language community competences") to the capital region is in the room - a proposal that the two largest Flemish parties N-VA and CD&V vehemently reject. You are saying that Brussels would not be viable without the financial support from the two major regions.

Conclusion

Belgium has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to make creative compromises when dealing with complex cultural differences. It is fundamental that the political forces involved do not see results as permanent and are open to adjustments. The country is an example of national minority protection across Europe, for example through the transfer of competencies to communities without their own territory.

Even if centrifugal forces appear to be dominant in Belgium at the moment, a seventh state reform to strengthen federal elements is likely in the medium to long term. The German-speaking community could also play a new role here. In the summer of 2017, the brand logo "Ostbelgien" was registered, with which companies and associations of the German-speaking community are to advertise in the future. Prime Minister Paasch elegantly denied political ulterior motives. Whether there will ever be a “four-person Belgium” (ie Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia and East Belgium), for which the (East Belgian) President of the European Committee of the Regions, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, is campaigning, really depends less from the German-speaking community as from the development of Brussels and there above all from the attitude of the Flemish parties N-VA and CD&V. In practice, the strict separation of language community competencies has not contributed to more bilingualism in the capital. From the point of view of the university professor Philippe Destatte, this could be achieved more effectively with a common and consistently bilingual education system and, above all, would benefit the dwindling Flemish language community. However, there is still a lot of persuasion to be done.

There has never been a clear and unified vision for Belgium's future. Pressure to reform arose primarily from crises. The reason for the seventh reform of the state cannot yet be foreseen - but it is likely that there will probably be another Belgian compromise. To do this, however, demands from all those involved must first be on the table. The German-speaking community has taken a first step in this direction.

© 2021 Hanns Seidel Foundation