Author: Boudewijn Bouckaert (University of Ghent)

‘When a people shall have become incapable of governing themselves, and fit for a master, it is of little consequence from what quarter he comes’.

George Washington, Letter to Lafayette, 1788


Belgium, a country in the heart of Europe, has no effective government since 2007. The political elites of the Flemish and the French speaking side are not able to find a compromise on the reform of the federal system. In this article an analysis of the causes of this long lasting crisis is developed. First, the difference of politics concerning policy within a given political entity (policy-politics) and politics about the optimal scope and size of a political entity (polity-politics) is explained. It is argued that a democracy can barely function when facing at the same time policy- and polity-conflicts. Such a combination prevents political transparency and degrades the quality of political decisions due to the linking of short-term decisions with long-term ones. The instability of the structure of the Belgian state has its historical roots in a weak historical identity and a low level of internalisation of Belgian nationhood among the Flemish population. This latter has its origins in a century long French cultural domination. While Switzerland remains a stable multi-linguistic state, Belgium fails in this respect. Three differences can explain this: Belgium has a past of cultural domination of one linguistic group by another; in Belgium social-economic characteristics are congruent with linguistic ones; in Belgium the federal authority is eroded by the growing powers of Europe. The prediction is that Belgium will continue to exist in the coming decades as a confederation. Due to asymmetries in nationhood-conscience between the Flemish and French speakers, to the fear of impoverishment in the Walloon region and to the complex situation in Brussels, this transformation will be a long and painful process.

Read the full text here!