Belgium: obscurity or ingenuity?

Welcome to Belgium. You might have heard this phrase over and over again, but we’ll try to explain the concept “Belgium” a bit more and a bit better in future editions of this newspaper. To start off with, let’s have a look at its political system, since most of us here are supposedly interested in complicated multi-layer multi-lingual structures of governance, right? The EU, anybody?

La division linguistique de Belgique
La division linguistique de Belgique

Belgium used to be a simple state when it became independent back in 1830: a single unitary state with ten provinces, each of which had a governor and its own provincial council. The only official language was French, despite the fact that a majority of the population spoke some dialect of the Dutch language.

Things, however, got more complicated in the 20th century. First of all, Dutch became an official language, and higher education in Dutch became possible in the 1930s. German – spoken in a region known as the “East Cantons” given to Belgium after the First World War – also got a limited status as an official language, albeit not on the same level as Dutch and French.

Secondly, the call for more regional autonomy after the Second World War resulted in a gradual weakening of the power of the Belgian state. Regionalists on both sides of the linguistic divide (known as “taalgrens/frontière linguistique”) claimed more autonomy on cultural matters (especially the Dutch-speakers) and on economic matters (especially the French-speakers). Negotiators only found common ground when they agreed to install both the linguistic communities (“gemeenschappen/communautés”) the Dutch-speakers wanted as well as the regional structures (“gewesten/régions”) that the French-speakers were advocating for.

As such, Belgium obtained two more levels of government which were (rather interestingly) superposed on one another. Brussels gradually became its own region, but remained part of both the Flemish and the French-speaking language communities on cultural matters. The German-speaking region of the “East Cantons” also became a language community while still belonging to the Walloon region regarding economic matters.

Whilst the three language communities (“gemeenschappen/communautés”) of Dutch-speakers, French-speakers and German-speakers deal with education and culture, the three regions (“gewesten/régions”) have competences regarding the economy, infrastructure, traffic, environment and local government.

The transfer of competences from the federal state to the three language communities and to the three regions was gradual, and resulted in a Belgian state with no less than six levels of governance: the cities and municipalities, the provinces, the regions, the language communities, the federal state and the European level.

Obscure you said? The Belgian state structure is both fascinating and frightening, especially since even most Belgians only know the basics. However, its ingenious and unique way of dealing with changing circumstances and demands is at the same time rather pragmatic and encouraging. Isn’t this also what Europe should be all about?

David Jan BOSSCHAERT

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