Federalism Laboratory Of Belgium (II)

Part I

Formation, language and political instability

The Netherlands was the bane of Habsburg Spain of King Philip II (1556‒1598) existence. They threatened both the Roman Catholic unity of his Empire and its political unity too. The people of northern provinces spoke Dutch, the middle provinces spoke Flemish (a Dutch dialect),[1] and the southern provinces spoke the Walloon dialect of French. Those provinces had a medieval Constitution. Philip II had, however, the aim to change their position as for him the Netherland were Spanish and should submit to royal authority and Roman Catholic orthodoxy. The fact that many Walloons, Flemings, and Dutch already became Calvinists and achieved religious solidarity by adopting the Belgic Confession in 1566 made them doubly determined to resist such Spanish and Roman Catholic pressure. Nevertheless, their resistance became turned into the first revolution for national independence in modern history.[2] The Dutch Declaration of Independence in 1581 became the forerunner of the document signed by the 13 American colonies in 1776.[3] The revolt started in the Netherlands in 1566, when 200 aristocrats of the various provinces, both Protestants and moderate Roman Catholics petitioned Philip II not to introduce Spanish conceptions of Government. Their focal task was to preserve their liberties. When Spanish authorities refused the requirement, the aristocrats became unable to control the mob violence which broke out in the major cities. The mob was bitterly anti-Spanish but as well as anti-Catholic, but Philip II did not make any distinction between moderate aristocrats and fanatical masses. In 1567 he sent a punishment expedition from Spain of 20.000 soldiers which committed many crimes („Spanish Fury“) causing finally unification of the „natives“ against the „foreigners“. In 1579, the Duch provinces formed the Union of Utrecht and proclaimed their independence from Spain in 1581. The big northern Flemish cities, including Antwerp and Ghent, also joined the Union of Utrecht. The provinces of the Spanish Netherlands were created, thus forming the territory that was to become modern Belgium. Nevertheless, the seven Duch provinces, called the United Provinces, became the first state in modern history to dissociate the idea of the nation from that of loyalty to the dynastic monarchy. In 1584, the Dutch lost Antwerp but received ultimate assistance by England as Queen Elisabeth I (1558−1603) finally overcame her dislike for helping rebels against a legitimate sovereign because of her fear of Spanish intervention in England from across the Channel.[4]

After the Congress of Vienna in 1814−1815, the northern and southern Netherlands were reunited under King Willem I, and the Dutch language was imposed as a standard language. This unified Kingdom of the Netherlands existed from 1815 to 1830.

The 1830 July Revolution in France had a direct impact beyond her state’s borders and the most successful revolution happened in Belgium – the country where the existing Government was mostly out of touch with its inhabitants. The 1830 Belgian Revolution was an expression of both liberal oppositions to the rule of the Dutch king and the local Roman Catholic nationalistic desires for independence from a Protestant portion of the Netherlands. Both the Walloon and the Flemish Roman Catholics in the Kingdom of Netherlands had resented their forced union with the Dutch since it was imposed on them after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. A number of them have been in favor of being unified with neighboring France, but the majority were pushing towards independence. Flemings and Walloons were in agreement to puta n end to a union which affronted their national sentiments.[5] Regardless of the fact that they outnumbered the Dutch 2 to 1, and that their economic development was becoming more dynamic in comparison to their northern overlords, they felt themselves as an oppressed minority. As a consequence, the old Roman Catholic feudal nobility joined their forces with the younger middle-class liberals in an insurrection in Brussels and having expelled Dutch troops from Belgium, they proclaimed Belgium independence on October 4th, 1830.[6] With the British and French assistance, Belgium as an independent state was recognized in January 1831 by the five European Great Powers together with her perpetual military neutrality.[7]

There was the question of the borders on new Belgium, however, remained to be unsolved for a moment. The Belgians claimed Dutch Maastricht, Limburg, and Luxemburg as well as. Contesting these claims, the Dutch invaded Belgium, whose King called upon France for military help. French troops soon occupied Brussels and a new peace treaty was signed on October 15th, 1831, but appreciably reduced the frontiers of Belgium originally assigned to the new European state. Holland retained Maastricht and a part of Limburg, while the major part of Luxemburg was made into an independent Grand Duchy of Luxemburg. Nevertheless, Holland officially recognized Belgium independence and neutrality only in April 1839.

In Belgium until the 1870s, French was the single official language, and large segments of the Flemish-speaking inhabitants acquired excellent skills in French in order to be able to function in official bureaucratic apparatus, the educational system, non-local commerce, and other various public domains of activity. French-speaking Wallonians, however, rarely learned Flemish. Nevertheless, during the 19th century, the Flemish Movement became stronger and finally succeeded through a series of linguistic laws passed from 1878 onwards in elevating Dutch to the status of the official language of the Flemish-speaking provinces. In the Francophone territories of Belgium, the legal inroads made by Flemish led to the development of a Wallonian nationalist movement. French remains the official language in Wallonia.[8] The German language serves as the protected official language of some 60.000 speakers in a small area of Belgium, along the eastern border of the French-speaking province of Liège.

The new Belgian regime was the most liberal one on the Continental part of Europe with the new Constitution to be more liberal and democratic than that of the July Monarchy of France as it recognized the sovereignty of the citizens more clearly, it guaranteed a larger range of civil rights, and, finally, it created a legislature of which both houses were elected thought the proportion of eligible voters. Political parties in Belgium did not exist until 1839, the year in which Belgium independence was finally recognized. However, public opinion became soon divided between the Roman Catholic camp and the camp of Liberals – two groups separated by different views on the relationships between the church and the state, but especially in the field of education. In addition, harsh controversies existed about the issue of monasteries, convents, and clerical property in general. Following the example of the UK, Belgium adopted a free trade system and in such a way increased her prosperity. Belgium was rich in coal mines, and spinning mills and factories multiplied soon. The port of Antwerp grew in importance as it was earlier in the Middle Ages. In 1865 King Leopold I died and was succeeded by his son King Leopold II (30 years old), who was to preside over his country’s destiny and prosperity for next almost 50 years, to the benefit of his citizens but to the misfortune of the inhabitants of his colony Congo.

Nevertheless, historically, the growing economic, social, and emotional gulf between the two ethnolinguistic parts in Belgium led to political instability, firstly heightened in the 1970s and secondly today. In addition to the emergence of a number of regional parties, the Flemish and the Walloon sections of the main parties (the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, and the Liberals) split to form separate regional parties.

We have to remember that all human beings in modern political systems possess multiple political identities, rooted in family, locality, or workplace, to which they belong. However, national identities are in the majority of cases among the most significant in comparison to all others. National identity is a complex phenomenon, the product of complex interaction between social, economic, political, confessional, and cultural histories and backgrounds.[9] In principle, it has to be a state to play a role of basic institutional organization of one modern nation on a defined territory whose borders it protects, but in many particular cases it is as well as a state that holds together its people-citizens of different ethnic, linguistic, cultural or confessional groups, some of whom are well thinking of themselves to be separate nations. Thus Belgium holds together French-speaking Walloons and Flemish (Dutch) speaking Flemings. In such cases, it is, therefore, natural for the central authorities to have to operate with some potential for political danger arising from these separate national groups within its borders. The origins of such identities are historically different as they can be founded on confession, language, history, etc. In the case of Belgium, they are founded on separate languages although having the same confessional orientation (Roman Catholicism). Peaceful national movements (as up to now they use peaceful political methods to achieve their national goals) are usually tolerated by the existing state’s structure, and their political demands are to certain degree taken into account, as, for instance, by Spain or Belgium, which have tried in this way to defuse the potential danger from the separatist movements of the Basques, the Catalans, and the Flemings.

Belgium responded to growing tensions between its two major language groups by devolving power in the state to three regions: a Wallon region, a Flemish region, and a Brussels central region. This is an application of the policy of regional pluralism with an attempt to accommodate ethnolinguistic diversity within a state by granting regions a substantial degree of self-government, i.e., the regional autonomy. This involved a policy of linguistic and cultural equality with the official or dominant official language and culture in particular regions. However, in practice in many European cases, the people of economically more prosperous and richer regions (a Flemish region in Belgium) may feel that poorer regions or provinces of the same state are living off their backs and holding them back, while, at the same time, the inhabitants of poorer regions or provinces (a Walloon region in Belgium) may feel trapped in their relations with richer regions as they can be underdeveloped as they are exploited under the terms of worsening political-administrative and fiscal-financial dependency. For the richer regions, there are, in principle, two possible tactics or ways out: 1) to get control over the central Government in a capital city and, consequently, make it reduce its subventions to the poorer regions by liberal free-market policies, or 2) to separate their region from the state. In West Europe, the Nothern Leagues in Italy and the Flemish movement in Belgium are the best examples of the political fluctuations between these two realistic approaches.[10]

belgium-a-federal-state-lIn en effort to address its growing divisions, the country was built into a federal state in three stages (in 1980, 1988, and 1993). By 1993, there were Parliaments for the Walloon Region, the Flemish Region, and the bilingual city of Brussels (three Parliaments – one state!). The federal regions were given authority over 40% of the public expenditure for matters in their purview (education, culture, health, economic, and labor policy). In these areas, Flanders[11] and Wallonia are also empowered to conclude international treaties (similarly with the „Muslim-Croat Federation“ and „The Serbian Republic“ in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Further powers to the regions in matters of agriculture, transport, and foreign aid were granted in 2001. The contrast between the Flemish part and Wallonia was exacerbated by the growth, in the Flemish part, of separatist and xenophobic parties from the mid-1990s, most notably the Vlaams Blok (the Flemish bloc).[12] Advocating the Flemish independence (like northern parts of ex-Yugoslavia – Slovenia and Croatia) and racist immigration policies, it polled over 20% of the vote in Belgium’s second city – Antwerp in 2000. In federal politics, a major political shift occurred in 1999, when the Christian Democrats lost the leading role in the politics which they had occupied throughout the century, owing to a series of corruption scandals. From that time, the Liberals became the biggest party bloc in the Parliament.

The Belgian Pandora Box

During the last great political crisis in Belgium, it became obvious that the Walloons are making all kinds of obstacles for the creation of a new functional Government in Brussels what gives an argument to the Flanders to claim that basically the southern Walloons are the main „separatists“. The crisis was quite serious with unpredictable consequences for the territorial integrity of Belgium in the future, but also and what concerns the everyday political activities. For instance, it was at that time in question could Belgium sign a new European agreement in Lisbon without the Government.

The Flemish political parties, frustrated because of the Walloon obstructions, were threatening the south to unilaterally proclaim the city of Brussels as their own with the Flamish/Duch language as the only official one.[13] As a response, the Francophone parties proclaimed they will stop any further negotiations if the Flemish north will realize its threat concerning Brussels. It can be said that the roots of the Belgian governmental-political crisis are so historically deep that the territorial decomposition of the state was becoming more and more realistic. When the Belgian Pandora Box will be open is probably only the question of time.

However, the Belgian Pandora Box can have quite negative consequences for further European unification as in the case of its decomposition the Belgian experiment of multi-ethnolinguistic integration is going to be definitely put to the archives. In this case, Belgium as a „laboratory of European integration“ (definition is given by one Belgian Prime Minister) would have a great influence on numerous European separatist movements and to the remapping of the European political reality. For instance, according to one public research, 54% of interviewed French citizens expressed wish to incorporate Wallonia into France in the case of the Belgian dismemberment as a state. The boomerang of „self-determination rights“ sent to the ethnolinguistic nations of ex-Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union from Brussels at the beginning of the 1990s is via Kosovo today returning back to Brussels with 87% of Flemish/Duch speakers from Belgium supporting separation and with 77% of their linguistic-historic cross-border compatriots from the Netherlands wishing to include Flanders into the „motherland“ as historic region of the Netherlands (till 1830).[14]

In such a way, the supra-ethnolinguistic „Belgian“ nation could experience the same destiny of its „Yugoslav“ counterpart, however, with lesser chances to finish its existence by the civil war and ethnic cleansing as it was in the case of the destruction of ex-Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1999. Finally, an indication that the Belgian „laboratory of European integration“ is collapsing have been and dramatic appeals in 2007 to the Belgians by their King Albert II to preserve national unity as „anachronic and catastrophic separatism“ could „erode the international role of Brussels“ (and deprived him of the throne).[15]


The structural difficulties of heavy industry, that was the backbone of Wallonia’s economic prosperity and dominance over Belgium, shifted from the 1960s the economic advantage to the Flemish controlled north and opened the question of re-arranging the ethnic and federal relations in the country. Flanders continued to economically prosper through trade and commerce being favored territory for the development of the new industries because of its access to the sea. The growing economic, social, linguistic and political gap between Wallonia and Flanders led Belgium during the last decades into instability and segregation of the society along the ethnic lines. It is visible and from the political scene of the country as new regional parties were formed followed by the Flemish and Walloon sections of the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, and finally the Liberals splitting to form separate parties according to the ethnic division of the country.

In order to stop the process of destruction of the country, Belgium was federalized in three stages: in 1980, 1988 and 1993.[16] The Parliaments for both federal regions are established and the city of Brussels became officially bilingual. The federal regions of Wallonia and Flanders received the right to control around 40% of public expenditure in the area of education, culture, health, economic and labor policies with the right to conclude international treaties in these areas. Further administering powers to these two regions in matters of agriculture, transport, and foreign aid are granted in 2001.[17] However, the contrast between the Flemish part[18] and the Walloon part of Belgium is exacerbated by the growth, in Flanders, separatist, nationalistic and xenophobic political parties, most notably the Vlaams Blok which is advocating the Flemish political and state’s independence from Belgium but also and racist immigration policies. Due to its ethnolinguistic composition, historical development, and position in the European Union, the Kingdom of Belgium is a real multiculturalism laboratory of European integration.[19]

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[1] The term Flemish denotes those dialects of Dutch spoken in North Belgium, i.e. the Germanic varieties spoken in the provinces of East and West Flanders, Brabant and Belgian Limburg. However, the term is potentially misleading for the very fact that the dialects of East and West Flanders alone can as well as be called Flemish in contrast to Brabants and Lindsburgs. Nevertheless, up to now, there is no other satisfactory term in English language, and it, in fact, corresponds to the common use of Vlaams in Belgium as a cover term for all Dutch dialects in the country [Robert B. Howell, “The Low Countries: A Study in Sharply Contrasting Nationalisms”, Stephen Barbour, Cathie Carmichael, (eds.), Language and Nationalism in Europe, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 130−150].

[2] Dragoljub Živojinović, Uspon Evrope (1450−1789), Novi Sad: Matica srpska, 1985, 111−127.

[3] Henri Bemford Parks, Istorija Sjedinjenih Američkih Država, Drugo izdanje, Beograd: Rad, 1986, 117−138; Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States, New York−London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, 72−108.

[4] E. N. Williams, The Penguin Dictionary of English and European History, 1485−1789, London: Penguin Books, 1980, 123−130; Juan Lalaguna, Spain, Fully updated Fifth Edition, London: Phoenix, 2002, 99.

[5] Marcel Dunan (ed.), Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History from 1500 to the Present Day, New Revised Edition, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1972, 292.

[6] See more in [Joseph Ernest Morris, Beautiful Europe: Belgium, Kind Edition, 2014].

[7] Edward R. Tannenbaum, European Civilization since the Middle Ages, Second Edition, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1971, 405.

[8] See more in [Manfred Kohler, Language Politics in Belgium and the Flemish-Walloon Conflict: Reason for a State to Fail or Driving Force Behind Federalism and Conciliation, VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2010].

[9] Dawid Gowland, Richard, Dunphy, Charlotte Lythe, The European Mosaic, Third Edition, Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2006, 463.

[10] See more in [Jeffrey Haynes, Peter Hough, Shahin Malik, Lloyd Pettiford, World Politics, Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2011].

[11] Flanders is usually used to denote the entire Dutch-speaking North Belgium. However, the term can be used in the more precise, and earlier, sense of the area of the province of Flanders that is modern East and West Flanders in modern North-East Belgium [Robert B. Howell, “The Low Countries: A Study in Sharply Contrasting Nationalisms”, Stephen Barbour, Cathie Carmichael, (eds.), Language and Nationalism in Europe, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 130−150]. About Flanders in the Middle Ages, see in [David Nicholas, Medieval Flanders, Routledge, 2014].

[12] See more in [Antony Mason, Xenophobe’s Guide to the Belgians, Kind Edition, 2009].

[13] About Flanders, see in [Andre de Vries, Flanders. A Cultural History, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2007].

[14] About the problems of the European integration policy, see in [Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Opting Out of the European Union. Diplomacy, Sovereignty and European Integration, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014].

[15] About the problems of federalism in multinational states, see more in [Michel Seymour, Alian G. Gagnon, Multinational Federalism: Problems and Prospects, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012].

[16] See more in [Stef Feyen, Beyond Federal Dogmatics: The Influence of European Union Law on Belgian Constitutional Case Law Regarding Federalism, Leuven University Press, 2013].

[17] See more in [Marleen Brans, Lieven De Winter, Wilfried Swenden, The Politics of Belgium: Institutions and Policy Under Bipolar and Centrifugal Federalism, Routledge, 2009].

[18] On Flemish issue, see more in [Dean Amory (compiled), The Flemish: Origins, History, Culture, Influence and Migrations of the Flemings, Edgard Adriaens, 2014].

[19] See more in [Walter Laqueur, Europa mūsų laikais, 1945−1992, Vilnius: ALK, 1995; Eric Hobsbawn, Kraštutinumų amžius. Trumpasis XX amžius: 1914−1991, Vilnius: ALK, 2000; Mark Elliot, Culture Shock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette: Belgium, Marshal Cavendish Corporation, 2011].

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