Federalism Laboratory Of Belgium (I)

Belgium is the political cener for the European Union (the EU) and the NATO, and it is one of the six EU countries which originally established the European Single Market.[i] The question of Belgium’s multicultural federalism is of crucial importance for the future process of European integration or disintegration.

Historical background

The international and pan-European Treaty of Westphalia (1648) established a core group of states that dominated the world’s affairs up to WWI: Austria, Russia, Prussia, England (later the UK), France, and the United Provinces (the area today composed by the Netherlands and Belgium).[ii] Belgium became established in 1830 mainly in order to prevent a possible military attack from France or the Netherlands as Holland became divided into the Netherlands and Belgium.[iii] As an artificial British political creation, its neutrality was guaranteed by the UK in 1839.[iv] Belgium became the first continental country in Europe that was industrialized, partly because of its proximity to industrializing Great Britain, but also because of the abundance of coal in South Belgium. Its economic weight buttressed the domination of the Roman Catholic French-speaking Walloon south over the Roman Catholic Flemish (Duch)-speaking majority in North Belgium, whose wealth was derived from agriculture and commerce.

One of the most brutal colonial administrations and exploitations in the history of European imperialism and colonialism was in the vast region of Central Africa – today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC). This part of Africa was not explored by the West Europeans until 1867 when the Brit Henry Morton Stanley voyaged down the Lualaba River (Upper Congo). His adventure impressed Léopold II, King of the Belgians, who now decided to acquire the region for himself as a private citizen, hoping, in fact, to increase his wealth and power. After the explorer Stanley’s journey down the Congo River in 1877, the ambitious Belgium King Léopold II took him into his personal service. The king sent Stanley back to Central Africa for the purpose to establish the Congo Free State to be governed by a company of which he was the sole owner. This requirement Stanley realized with great energy and in 1879 he returned to the lower Congo and laid the foundations of the huge private domain the king carved out for himself in the basin of the Congo River.

King Leopold II of Belgium
King Leopold II of Belgium

In fact, the king obtained a land of 900.000 sq. miles that was, in fact, around 80 times the size of Belgium.[v] In order to ensure Belgium’s economic and industrial expansion, King Léopold II occupied Congo’s territory in Central Africa in 1881−1885 that became transferred to the quasi-state called Congo Free State when he got international recognition for his only African colony which was renamed in 1908 into the Belgian Congo.[vi] A colony of King Léopold II was harshly administered as the natural resources (diamond) have been extracted with no concern for the local people of Congo who, in fact, served as slave labor for Léopold’s agents.[vii] Finally, the colonialist Belgians abruptly left Congo in 1960 when for a certain time a power vacuum arose. Civil war broke out, as several contending factions sought to take power and bring order out of the chaos. One of the contenders, the PM of Congo, Patrice Lumumba (1925−1961), appealed to the USSR for help in fighting the Western-backed rebels and as a consequence, received both diplomatic support and military supplies. However, P. Lumumba was dismissed by the President of Congo, Joseph Kasuvubu, an ally of the USA. Still others, like Moise Tsombe, a leader of the copper-rich Katanga province, who was as well as closely related to the Western corporate interests, struggled for control. The three-year civil war could at that time become another proxy war between the USA and the USSR for influence in the emerging continent. Nevertheless, the OUN averted the proxy confrontation between these two Cold War superpowers by sending in supposedly neutral peacekeepers, whose the focal task was to fill the power-vacuum and prevent the superpowers from altering Congo into another space of the Cold War.

Slave labor workers in Leopold II Congo
Slave labor workers in Leopold II Congo

However, political events in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the end of the Cold War 1.0 provide a very proper illustration of the complexities of contemporary conflict and the dangers of providing simple explanations of why wars occur. More precisely, between 1996 and 2006 in this „African Wars“ some 4 million people died as a consequence of ethnic rivalries, civil war and foreign (Western) intervention, followed by starvation and disease.[viii]

In Belgium, the Flemish language (a dialect of Duch), in response to the heavy protests from the Flemish citizens of Belgium, was recognized as an equal official language to the French in 1922.[ix]

The political confrontation between the Flamish and Walloon population in Belgium started after WWII as the Walloons accused the Flemish compatriots of a massive collaboration with the Nazi German occupation troops during the war. It left deep scars in the Belgian society up to the present. The country is one of the founders of the process of the European post-war integration in 1951 but and a protagonist of the existence of the NATO that breaks original Belgium neutrality’s political course in international relations.[x] Even the NATO’s HQ (like of the EU) is located in Belgium’s capital Brussels – a symbol of Belgium’s so far Flamish-Walloon’s unity and multiculturalism. However, as the Belgians became emphatically European, their own national identity was and is increasingly under a big question.

The Belgian multicultural society: Long united and long divided

The population of the Kingdom of Belgium is 10 million and it is divided into two main linguistic groups: the northern Duch speakers (the Flemish/Flanders) – 6 million and the southern French-speaking population (the Walloons) – 4 million. The main third speaking group is the Germans (67,000) living on the German border. The capital Brussels upsets this neat division as it is mainly French-speaking city within the Dutch-speaking Flemish part of Belgium on the north. For the matter of comparison, the whole country is a quarter size of the United Kingdom, fitting into France 18 times and having 70% of the population number of the Netherlands (16 million).

Belgium not so often attracts outside attention. Yet the country is more than fine chocolates, delicious beers or Tintin. Usually, the others celebrate Belgium as a federal, post-nationalist country, which combines cultural pragmatism with a rather solid social consensus. The historians present the country without a critical vision of the origins of the Belgian independence in 1830 as a part of a game between the great European powers.[xi] Belgium as well as illustrates how the deep-seated tradition of local autonomy and suspicion towards the state’s authority go hand in hand with a strong sense of individual tolerance and solidarity, with a rejection of violent confrontation and a continuous search for consensus between the Flemish and the Walloon parts of the country. Belgian history from the very beginning in 1830 up to the present is a history of linguistic diversity, cultural plurality and a search for a kind of a “Belgian” common identity of its all citizens who are constantly living between state’s integration and its territorial disintegration.[xii]

Map of Ethnic composition of BelgiumBelgium is an example of the ambivalent relation between history, national myths, and the “lasagne” identity of most Belgians for whom the king, as a political institution, is de facto the only factor of the national unity. The Belgian case of multicultural federalism can be at the same time and a model but also and a warning for the rest of Europe. Its history addresses questions of identity and security, of a sense of cohesion and common purpose – or the lack thereof. Like for the rest of Europe as well.[xiii]

Any history of the Belgians from 1830 onwards has to describe the traditions and transitions that have developed on the territory of present-day Belgium in a sense of shared identity, common government, and a centralized nation-state – and then over a few recent decades paved the way for Flemish-Walloon schism that now threatens to break up Belgium. However, it has to respond to the crucial question: Why does a government, unified for more than 150 years, no longer, in essence, seem capable of holding together a linguistically divided country as it had before? If Belgium, as a symbol of the West European successful policy of multiculturalism and multilingual cohabitation, can not function anymore properly as a united political system and a country based on it, what other parts of Europe with the same or similar structure and problems as Belgium can expect in the post-Cold War 1.0 future of Europe which basically already started in 2014 in the multilingual and multicultural Ukraine?[xiv]

In historically tracing the evolution of the governance of Belgium, one has to describe why and how the dominance of the French-speaking propertied elite eroded after having monopolized the land’s governance for decades. The extension of suffrage, combined with the rise of literacy and schooling enabled labor and the Flemish movement to gather sufficient power to fracture the Belgian polity, splitting its parties and frustrating its politics. The presence of the European Union (the EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (the NATO) has, in a tangential way, enable the Belgian separatists to discount the merit of a national government that is no longer needed to defend the country militarily and economically.[xv]

Therefore, for example, in 2008, after 196 days after parliamentary elections, Belgium finally got a new Government. This new Belgian record in not having state’s Government is achieved due to the main historical disputes between two major ethnolinguistic groups – the French-speaking Walloons at the south and the Flemish/Duch speakers (the Flanders) at the north (both of them are mainly Roman-Catholics). The previous record of not having formed Government was from the year of 1988 – 148 days. In this particular case, for instance, the winner of the spring 2007 parliamentary elections – Ive Leterm – Flemish nationalist could not form a new Belgian Government even after several rounds of negotiations and interventions by the king. Ive Leterm, ironically a politician with a French name, accused at that time the Walloons for obstruction, while at the same time, the French speakers were accusing him of uniform nationalistic mind. Nevertheless, Vlaams Blok, which campaigns both against the immigration policy of the EU and Brussels and in favor of Flemish political independence, already became a major force in Belgian politics.[xvi] In such a way, Belgium, as one of the central protagonists of the pan-European integration, was in the stage of real disunity and possible territorial dismemberment in the recent future.

Historical disputes

The struggle between the Walloons and the Flanders (the Flemish/Dutch speakers are 60% of the Belgium population) at linguistic, political, national and cultural levels is not a novelty in Belgium as they are historically rooted from the very beginning of common political life – from 1830 when the Kingdom of Belgium was established. Belgium’s federal structure is established on the principles of two ethnolinguistic regions (northern Flanders and southern Wallonia) and Brussels with special bilingual status (the Flemish dialect of Duch language was recognized as an equal official language in 1922). Two federal units are governing one part of their regional economies, transport, education, while the federal power has jurisdiction over foreign politics, defense, justice, and social insurance. However, from the time of the Flemish winning coalition in 2007, the Flemish nationalists are openly requiring more federal rights: a higher level of taxation policy independence, regionalization of social insurance, autonomy in traffic regulations, separate car-plates, and even „constitution autonomy“.[xvii] On the other hand, the Walloons are in a real fear that such requirements will finally end with the disappearance of the common state (which economic weight buttressed the industrial domination of the French-speaking Walloon south over the Flemish/Dutch-speaking majority in the north, whose wealth is derived from agriculture and commerce). What concerns economy, we have to remember that Belgium was the first industrialized continental European state (the second one in geographical Europe, i.e. after the United Kingdom or better to say – England).

Belgium’s political life historically had always the same main problem: the Flemish north was wishing more power and separation, while the French-speaking south was for the preservation of Belgium as one state. Thus, for instance, after WWII the Belgian society was in unpleasant debate upon collaboration with the Nazi-Germans which left deep scars in the Belgian political life, as the population of Wallonia accused many Flemish/Dutch-speaking Belgians of sympathizing with the occupiers and even helping them for the reason of hope to get independence (like, for instance, the Ukrainians did during WWII).[xviii]

Economic differences

As the Belgians became from the 1950s emphatically European, their own national identity was under question, which has an economic background as well. Namely, the structural difficulties of heavy industry, which had been the backbone of Wallonia’s prosperity, gradually shifted the economic advantage to the Flemish north of the common country. Flanders continued to prosper through trade and commerce and was a favored location for the new industries owing to its ready access to the sea.

Similarly to the case of North Italy (Lombardia region), reach regions of Flanders are propagating to stop to „feed“ any more poor Wallon south which is arrogant towards the Flemish language and culture. For instance, the Walloons consider the Flamish language as „underdeveloped“ to be used as the official university language in Belgium. Basically, one of the main Flemish political complaints is of economic nature: financial capital of „developed“ north is directed to „underdeveloped“ south by the ruling Walloon politicians in Brussels for the matter of economic help to Wallonia.

For the Flemish population of Flanders that is economic exploitation by the Walloons as the Flemish north is much more participating in the central budget than lesser developed Wallonia (the same complains of economic nature started Yugoslav crisis when at the end of the 1980s Slovenia and Croatia advocated policy of non-supporting any more underdeveloped Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro).

The most fervent critics of current financial policy on relations Flanders-Wallonia are the big Flemish capital owners and managers who in 2005 openly advocated the division of the country as Flanders is overburdened by taxation in the favor of Wallonia. Such Belgian financial politics, originally introduced to form and maintain state unity and Belgian nation, was later implemented within the framework of the European Community/Union. In addition to this pure economic problem, the Walloon politicians are accused by their Flemish colleagues for the deliberate settlement of Francophone immigrants to Brussels in order to „Francophonize“ this once upon a time biggest Flemish city.

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] The European Single Market was in nucleus form established in 1957 by signed the Treaty of Rome, which established the framework for the European Economic Community (the EEC), a common market and customs union among the six founding states: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. See more in [Dennis Swann (ed.), The Single European Market and Beyond: A Study of the Wider Implications of the Single European Act, London−New York: Routledge, 1992].

[ii] See [Oskar Halecki, Europos istorijos ribos ir skirstymai, Vilnius: Margi raštai, 2014].

[iii] Karen A. Mingst, Essentials of International Relations, Third Edition, New York−London: W. W. Northon & Company, 2004, 30.

[iv]  Jan Palmowski, A Dictionary of Contemporary World History: From 1900 to the Present Day, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 56. See more in [Čedomir Popov, Građanska Evropa (1770−1871). Druga knjiga. Politička istorija Evrope, I−II, Novi Sad: Matica srpska, 1989].

[v] Richard W. Mansbach, Kirsten L. Taylor, Introduction to Global Politics, Second Edition, London−New York: Routledge, 2012, 142.

[vi] Geoffrey Barraclough (ed.), The Times Atlas of World History, Revised Edition, Maplewood, New Jersey: Hammond, 1986, 245. See more in [Guy Vanthemshe, Belgium and the Congo 1885−1980, Cambridge University Press, 2012; David Van Reybrouck, Congo: The Epic History of a People, New York: HarperCollins, 2015; Kevin Grant, The Congo Free State and the New Imperialism, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016].

[vii] The exploitation of the Congo in the late 19th century is brilliantly evoked in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899). See more in [Tod Olson, Leopold II: Butcher of the Congo, Children’s Press, 2008].

[viii] John Baylis, Steve Smith, Patricia Owens, The Globalization of World Politics, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 238.

[ix] On the history of Belgium, see more in [Benno Barnard, Martine van Berlo, Geert van Istendael, Tony Judt, Marc Reynebeau, How Can One Not Be Interested in Belgian History: War, Language and Consensus in Belgium Since 1830, Academia Scienic, 2005].

[x] Belgium was one out of twelve establishing Member States of NATO in 1949. On the post-WWII European integration, see in [Christopher J. Bickerton, European Integration. From Nation States to Member States, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012].

[xi] See, for instance [John M. Roberts, The New Penguin History of the World, Fourth Edition, London−New York, 2002; William Elliot Griffis, Belgium: The Land of Arts, Its History, Legends, Industry, and Modern Expansion, Forgotten Books, 2012].

[xii] See, more in [Stephen B. Wickman, Belgium: A Country Study, Washington, 1985; Léon van der Essen, A Short History of Belgium, Nabu Press, 2010].

[xiii] About the question of unity and disunity of Belgium, see in [Samuel Humes, Belgium: Long United, Long Divided, Hurst, 2014].

[xiv] On the problems of multiculturalism in Europe, see in [Anna Triandafyllidou, Tariq Modood (eds.), European Multiculturalisms, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012].

[xv] More in [Émile Cammaerts, A History of Belgium from the Roman Invasion to the Present Day, A Public Domain Book, 2011].

[xvi] Andrew Heywood, Global Politics, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 179.

[xvii] On the history of the Flemish movement up to 1992, see in [Theo Hermans, Louis Vos, Lode Wils, The Flemish Movement: A Documentary History, 1780−1990, Athlone Pr, 1992].

[xviii] See [Els Witte, Jan Craevbeckx, Alain Meynen, Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards, Academic & Scientific Publishers, 2010]. About the Flemish nationalism in WWI, see in [Karen Shelby, Flemish Nationalism and The Great War: The Politics of Memory, Visual Culture and Commemoration, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014].

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  1. The precursor of the European Union was the Benelux (Belgium the Netherlands and Luxembourg) It was founded before 1957, I guess shortly after WWII between 45 and 50. .?

  2. Biased article and gross errors, notably on the prohibition of learning the Dutch language in the Walloon region. On the subject of Congo, the author unreservedly repeats the English propaganda known for a long time. For information the inhabitants south east along the German border are considered and consider themselves as German-speaking Belgians and not as Germans

  3. Sanimideg


    Article of truth with factographic evidences proven by Western scholars. The case of Congo is not British propaganda but rather the painful truth which Belgians do not want to listen. German-speaking population in Belgium are not Belgians as hey are German ethnic minority in Belgium.

    Proposal to you: lesser Belgium shauvinistic nationalism and more academic research results.

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