Thursday, August 23, 2007

Coulisses de Bruxelles

Jean Quatremer's blog, Coulisses de Bruxelles is not award-winning for nothing. It's by far the highest-quality French-language EU blog that I am aware of, with insightful postings by the author and a lively, courteous, and serious debate by commentators.

M. Quatremer's recent postings have focused primarily on the new EU treaty and on the growing political and constitutional crisis in Belgium. Belgian politics is a something of a black art, and has the ability to flummox even veteran Brussels expats.

Quatermer's latest theory is that Belgium may be heading for dissolution because the Walloons and Flemings are incapable of agreeing the terms of a new coalition government. The king recently suspended negotiations for the many players to cool off and come back to the table after the Summer with a renewed commitment to power sharing. As I understand it, the key issue is how much de-centralising constitutional reform the Flemings can extract from the Walloons. Massively oversimplified, this is about the Flemish parties pushing for more independence within Belgium, at the inevitable economic expense of their poorer French-speaking countrymen.

Last year, a Belgian state-funded French-language television channel ran a spoof news item that pretended that Flanders had seceded. Quite apart from the political furore that followed, the episode was interesting because of the scenario chosen by the broadcasters - a vote by the Flemish parliament. What we are seeing today is quite a different scenario - the simple absence of a democratically mandated federal government. I have not got the faintest idea how this will all end; for all I know, it could end up strengthening the Belgian federal state. But at the moment it looks like Belgium is slowly but surely tearing itself apart.

French-speaking and Dutch-speaking Belgians have separate print and broadcast media that focus on regional and not national perspectives. They have separate political parties (the Walloon Christian Democrats are at odds with the winner of the elections, their sister party in Flanders, over constitutional reform). They have a high degree of legislative independence from each other, including on such policy areas as environment. Their education systems are different and separate - it is rare to find a native French-speaker teaching French in a Flemish school, or a native Dutch-speaker teaching Dutch in a Walloon school. And national politics have become a sort of zero-sum game between Walloons and Flemings over money - for every subsidy granted to one region, the other insists on a matching subsidy for itself.

What are the implications and lessons for the EU? Should we be concluding that dissolution à la Belge is inevitable without greater centralisation of power in Brussels? Or should we conclude, on the contrary, that the EU is the ideal home for smaller "national" communities that prefer broader associations than the ones that have bound them to non-nation-states such as the UK, Belgium, or Spain? I tend towards the latter view, but we have not yet seen the practical effects of the dissolution of an EU Member States. The closest we have come is the velvet divorce of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but this happened some years before EU membership.

How would such a split work? Would new accession treaties be required for both Wallonia and Flanders, or Scotland and a rump England-Wales-Northern Ireland, or Catalonia and the rest of Spain? Would new calculations have to be made for votes in the Council and European Parliament seats? New allocations of Structural and other funds? How would the timing work? Would new official languages result? Would there be legal challenges to any of this? Which courts would have jurisdiction?

I'm not sure whether this post is really a review of the Coulisses de Bruxelles, or perhaps more of a collection of random thoughts about Belgian politics. At any rate, if you read French and you want to read only a half-dozen EU blogs every week, Jean Quatremer's should be one of them. Merci, Jean!

1 comment:

martinned said...


Thanks for the tip, I'll give the Liberation blog a look. As for Belgium, being Dutch I've been able to pretty much keep track of what's going on there. (We have Beglian TV here, and their political system is pretty much the same as ours, language issues aside.) My guess is that the pressure to make a deal will continue to rise, and eventually they will find a compromise, workable or not. The main problem is that Leterme, the Flemish Christian-Democrat leader, is under pressure both from the NVA Flemish nationalists that he has a semi-permanent pact with, and from the creepy racist Vlaams Belang, who again won slightly more votes in this election than in the last one. Normally, Verhofstadt's Flemish liberals would be more moderate, but they lost big, and so they're keeping their mouths shut.

As for the legal consequences of any split, the answer is that it depends on whethet any one of the successor states can be considered to embody the continuity of statehood. (Ugly language, I'm sorry, but I can't think of a nicer way to put it.) In Yugoslavia, Serbia has continued to enjoy the same position at international law that Serbia & Montenegro had before Montenegro became independent, which, in turn, is pretty much the same position Yugoslavia had before the civil war. Similarly, Russia is the successor at international law of the old USSR in many of its obligations and rights. If Scotland ever became independent, the same would probably happen: the remaining parts of the UK stay in the EU, and Scotland would have to negotiate about accession. However, because they'd need permission from the other member states to leave in the first place (cf. Greenland in 1984), the whole thing would be wrapped up in one relatively straightforward treaty amendment. All they'd have to do is fix the voting numbers, and this treaty would be ratified relatively simply by all the member states.

If Belgium split up, there would be no obvious successor state, so they'd both have to reaffirm their willingness to be bound by all the treaties Belgium is currently party to. For the EU, that probably would be much of a problem, and the same type of treaty as I outlined for the Scotland case would probably be enough. (Assuming the Flemish and Walloons would be able to agree on Brussels and on the numbers.)

Conclusion, one of the benefits of EU membership is that the consequences of independence for such regions are relatively modest.