This is not a federation

Five hundred and forty-one days. Belgium was certainly not experiencing its first political crisis, but the crisis that followed the elections of June 2010 was one for the books, if only because of its length. What is the nature of Belgian federalism today? How has it changed? What is it becoming? “Belgian federalism”, a work co-directed by the political scientist Geoffroy Matagne, analyzes the singular politics of “le plat pays”.

COVER federalisme belge“Your Highness, there are no Belgians; there are only Walloons and Flemings”. In 1912, back when Belgium was an undivided State, politician Jules Destrée wrote about the emerging linguistic tension between the northern and southern parts of the country. His famous letter to King Albert I still seems applicable 101 years later. That is no doubt because during the intervening century there have been six different reforms applied to the Constitution (occurring between 1970 and 2012), but they have not succeeded in solving the communitarian problems that remain, sometimes bubbling beneath the surface, sometimes in full view…

Political crises followed the elections of June 2007 and also the elections of 2010; these are only the latest examples. But they are extreme examples, because it took 194 days (beginning in 2007) to form a government with full powers – a government that would finally fall because of a dispute over the matter of the separation of the BHV (Brussels-Hal-Vilvoorde) arrondissement. Following that event, 541 additional days were required to resolve the impasse created by the elections. This kind of thing had never been seen before. 

Two consecutive periods of upheaval could not be overlooked by political scientists. Furthermore, federalism Belgian style, a sort of UFO in comparison with other political systems in the world, has not often been analyzed in a political science context. Le fédéralisme belge. Enjeux institutionnels, acteurs socio-politiques et opinions publiques(1) intends to correct that lacuna.

“We had the feeling that these questions had up to now been mainly dealt with from a socioeconomic or legal perspective, and there had been less treatment purely in terms of political science”, said Geoffroy Matagne, co-author, researcher and lecturer in the Political Science department at the University of Liège. “This book is being published in a collection sponsored by the Political Science Association of Francophone Belgium, and is intended to be a synthesis of ideas concerning the past and the future of Belgian federalism. Our purpose is to make this development clear for readers who are not specialists”.

Belgium for people who know nothing about it

The title of the book could just as well have been “Belgium for people who know nothing about it”, in view of the efforts the 12 authors represented here have made to render a complex subject clear and simple. At times they refer to the institutional structures that have existed between 1830 in the present day, especially to those associated with Brussels. At times they focus on socio-political actors (analyses of political platforms of the parties, or on the careers of parliamentarians and social partners); they also discuss the representations of these things published in the media, and their effect on public opinion.

(1) Régis DANDOY, Geoffroy MATAGNE, Caroline VAN WYNSBERGHE et al., Le fédéralisme belge. Enjeux institutionnels, acteurs socio-politiques et opinions publiques, Louvain-la-Neuve, Academia-L’Harmattan, coll. Science politique, 2013

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