Belgium united? Fewer fights between regions paint success story for federalism

Belgium united? Fewer fights between regions paint success story for federalism
Credit: Belga

A new study reviewing all Federal Government "rows" between 1979 and 2018 shows that though regional divides are clear to see on many topics, they at least boil over into spats less frequently than they once did.

Analysing four decades of "verbal brawls" on the cobbles of Rue de la Loi, it seems that regional differences between the Flemish and Francophone communities have tempered at the Federal Government level.

The findings are the result of doctoral research by Maxime Vandenberghe from the University of Ghent, who shared his work with De Morgen last week. In total, Vandenberghe identified 1,300 conflicts. However, he observed a marked decline in disputes since the 1970s.

Keeping it civil

The main research question was whether Belgium’s state reforms, which gradually turned Belgium into a federal state, increased or decreased tensions between Flemish and Francophone communities. De Morgen puts it as: Is Federal Belgium a success?

Research suggests so, with modern Belgium going against the paradox of federalism – that it inevitably brings a great desire for regional governments.

According to the PhD researcher: "There is certainly no upward trend in the number of community conflicts between 1979 and 2018. This indicates the relative success of a federalised Belgium and how state reforms have made an impact on a relatively more peaceful and smooth running of government.

Even though many factors are undoubtedly at play, such as the economic context or coalition composition, these tend to remain ideological rather than becoming bitter regional rifts.

Unfair focus on differences

North-South conflict between Flemish and Francophone communities is greatly over-represented, largely because it makes up a popular image of Belgian politics.

The reality is more complex, as regional disagreements on community issues do not actually occur very often, the research shows.

One possible explanation for the misleading portrayal of Belgium's communities constantly locking horns is the fact that some political parties seek to present themselves as spokespersons for their entire linguistic community, when in fact they represent only a portion of that demographic.

This is the case with the Christian Democratic Party (CVP until 2001, when it transformed into CD&V) in Flanders or the Socialist Party (PS) in Wallonia.

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Another explanation for the appeasement is the sixth state reforms in 2011 by the Di Rupo government. This attributed a series of competencies to the federalised regional states, bringing clarity to grey areas that had once been fertile for disagreement.

While Vandenberghe's research still leaves much to explore, it does seem clear that a gradual rapprochement between Francophone and Flemish communities has taken place at the federal level.

Many will argue the toss, but Federal Belgium seems to be working.

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