CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: New Order? International models of peace and reconciliation (Report No. 9)

CAIN Web Service

New Order?

International models of peace and reconciliation

Diversity and civil society

John Fitzmaurice

In Belgium, it is taken for granted that however serious the inter-community conflicts that beset the country become, they will be resolved or at least managed by peaceful and democratic means. This was, until Bosnia and perhaps until the 'troubles' in Belfast, never regarded as a significant achievement, though perhaps it should have been. Belgians are now, and perhaps have always been, critical of their political system and their political class. This fails to give credit where credit is due in at the very least one respect - ensuring peaceful conflict management.

It is often lost sight of that the very structures so roundly criticised are precisely those that were necessary to ensure such management. Equally, it is often forgotten that conflict management doesn't happen automatically. Nor is not a one-off, once-for-all quick fix, but a painstaking process that needs constant attention-and investment of ingenuity and resources. Perhaps, part of the Belgian method consists precisely in a rather low-key pragmatism that is neither dramatic nor easy to sell in public-relations terms.

Its system is its lack of system - muddling through and self-deprecation. Perhaps like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdan, who spoke in prose without knowing it, Belgian political leaders practise crisis-management without knowing it, or at least without shouting about it. That is without doubt the right approach in the Belgian political culture, and probably any other way would not work at all. But the downside is to make the very real, but unsung, achievements of the system vulnerable to at times ill-considered and demagogic attacks.

Before looking at the way Belgians have managed their inter-community conflicts, let us examine the seriousness of the conflict that had to be managed. Belgium is not a natural state - pace Henri Pirenne, the historian of Belgitude par excellence. It only came into being in 1830, though its contours had emerged as early as 1579. It was then that the Catholic southern provinces of the Spanish Netherlands opted to abandon their revolt and to stay with Spain, whereas the northern, Protestant provinces went on to become the Netherlands and were recognised as such internationally after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

After the short and unsuccessful interlude of the United Netherlands - forced on the former Spanish and later Austrian Netherlands for geopolitical reasons between the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the Belgian Revolution (1830) - a new independent and neutral state, guaranteed by all the great powers, emerged. Yet, in truth, this new Belgian state was just as much an artificial creation as the United Netherlands, though for different reasons.

The French-speaking, Catholic and rapidly industrialising Belgians had found themselves marginalised, disadvantaged economically and discriminated against within the United Netherlands. They reacted by creating their new state in their own image and interests. Now, the Flemish population felt excluded.

The only language of public life in the new state was French. It looked to France for its legal system and culture. Its economic and political life was dominated by French-speakers. Most Flemish people could not vote under the limited suffrage that prevailed until the first world war. The elite, even in Flanders, was French-speaking. Justice was dispensed only in French and, notoriously, in the 19th century two Flemish men were tried and condemned to death in French, which they did not understand. Most soldiers were Flemish, but officers were French-speaking and gave their orders in French.

The history of modern Belgium is very much the history of how the Flemish movement emerged to challenge this discriminatory and untenable situation and, in the process, ultimately transformed the old centralised, unitary Belgian state into the new federal structure. This process was long and complex and by no means always positive or effective. Indeed, sometimes it was a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process. It was, though, the dominant issue in Belgian public life, at least from 1900.

Inter-community conflict can be exacerbated and rendered more intractable by other factors that follow the same cleavage lines. Let us look at how such factors apply to the inter-community conflict between Flemish and Walloons in Belgium:-

  • Racial differences: Clearly, this factor is absent, as both Flemish and Walloons are northern Europeans.

  • Religion: It was the religious difference between the Catholic south and the Protestant north which led to the split between north and south that ultimately made the United Netherlands fail, issuing in the two separate states after 1830. But both Walloons and Flemish are Catholics. So, unlike Bosnia or Northern Ireland, religious differences have not been important.

  • Ideology: In the Baltic states, for example, Russians were communists, whereas the Balts were not merely nationalists but also anti-communist. In Belgium, while it can be argued that Wallonia leans more to the left and Flanders more to the right - which may add to the complexity of the political system and may also add an extra argument in favour of federalism - ideological difference are neither so sharp nor ideological dominance in each community so monolithic as to create a serious difficulty per se.

  • Minority enclaves: A key question is whether different communities are concentrated or spread. In Northern Ireland, there is of course some concentration, but there is also some spread of minority enclaves in the areas of the other community. In Bosnia, this is clearly the key problem, whereas the absence of significant Serb enclaves in Slovenia made it possible for Slovenia to accede to independence without major conflict. In Belgium, there are only some small minority enclaves, or exclaves, in each of the other communities, mostly very close to the language border. The exceptions are the 10-15 per cent Flemish minority within Brussels and the French-speaking minorities and even majorities in Flemish municipalities just outside Brussels, a situation which corresponds to the English-speaking minorities in and around Montréal in Québec.

    The strong attachment of both communities to Brussels is important. Population is spread within the city. There are no very strong Flemish areas. It can therefore not be split. Neither community wants to abandon Brussels. It has therefore been the cement that holds the country together. It has been a factor for cohesion, whereas larger enclaves elsewhere, inside the linguistic borders, would have made for conflict.

  • External irredentism: In Bosnia, Serb and Croat minorities were exclaves bordering on Mother Serbia or Croatia, both states that were stronger than their Serb, Moslem or Croat enemies within Bosnia. The same is true of the Hungarian minority in the Danube valley in Slovakia. It was true of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia after Hitler came to power in 1933, but not before. In Belgium, Flanders and Wallonia-and, for that matter, the small German-speaking community - have powerful neighbours with whom they have cultural and historical affinities and who could act as protectors.

    However, Walloons do not want to join France and there is no French pressure for them to do so. The so-called ratachiste movement is minuscule. Equally, the Netherlands has shown no interests in annexing Flanders and, since 1945, there has been no Greater Netherlands movement in Flanders. Indeed, ironically, the most nationalist Flemish party, the Vlaams Blok, intensely dislikes Dutch liberalism and permissiveness. It is not attracted to the modern Netherlands and here religion could play a role, especially on the Dutch side: if Flanders acceded to the Netherlands, it would upset the religious balance in the new state.

  • Economic divergences: In the 19th century, Wallonia was the economic heartland of Belgium, as Flanders had been in the middle ages. Indeed, after Britain, industrial Wallonia and especially the Sambre-Meuse coalfield was the cradle of the European industrial revolution - mightily aided after 1830 by the mercantilist policies of the new Belgian state.

    Economic power was in the hands of the emerging French-speaking bourgeoisie. Of course, the positions of the Walloon industrial proletariat and the Flemish peasant were equally unenviable. However, the degree of economic and social exclusion was even greater in Flanders, exacerbated by political and linguistic exclusion.

    Now there has been a reversal. Flanders is the dynamo of the modern Belgian economy. By any indicators of economic and social wellbeing, Wallonia now fares worse and has been deteriorating for at least two decades. Industrial decline has devastated many areas. Until 1970, unemployment in Wallonia was lower than in Flanders. Per capita gross domestic product was higher in Wallonia until 1966. In 1959, Flanders only produced 47 per cent of Belgium's GDP, in 1965 it produced 49 per cent, but by 1975 it produced 56 per cent and now (1996) 59 per cent. Per capita income is 115 percent of the EU average in Flanders but only 91 percent in Wallonia.

    Wage rates are significantly higher in Flanders. Unemployment is 10.5 per cent in Wallonia but only 6 per cent in Flanders. Long-term unemployment is more serious in Wallonia too: Flanders has created far more jobs and lost far fewer. Health costs, often an indirect indicator of social problems, are higher and rising faster in Wallonia and Walloon life expectancy is lower. Taken together, there has been a complete reversal. Wallonia has lost its sense of direction and dynamism. Wallonia has an image of being a 'loser', with a self-image of low esteem, paralysis, outmoded and inflexible attitudes and institutions, poor adaptability and dependency on the state and a particracie seen as more endemic there than in Flanders.

  • Language and culture: Clearly, a common language and culture can bridge other cleavages and represent a solid platform, within which different communities can coexist. It may not be enough, but it can help. In former Yugoslavia, where the various languages spoken are very close, language was not in itself a factor of division, but equally it was not an adequate bridge over other cleavages. In the Baltic states, sharp differences of language and culture served to accentuate other divergences. Equally, in Ireland language has not been a divisive factor. On the other hand, in Belgium, divisions between a Latin and a Germanic language have been a, if not the, central issue.

    Objectively, it would be difficult to maintain that the differences between Walloon and Flemish culture are such as to be decisive, though such differences exist. It could though well be that such differences will tend to increase over time, as the two regions develop separately and as all minorities within the other major community disappear. Already, it is fair to say that there is hardly any distinct Belgian culture, no single Belgian civil society, press, media or party system.

    Former national structures are dis-aggregating. Even the Catholic Church is adjusting its diocesan system to the new federal structure. There no one single demos and no national political debate. Very few politicians seek to operate in more than one community. It should be underlined that this development is neither fortuitous nor accidental. It may not matter, provided that - to use an otherwise notorious formula - the two societies and cultures are indeed 'separate, but equal', and provided conflict management structures continue to function effectively.

    It was over a century after Belgian in dependence before Flemish conscious ness and, in reaction, a defensive, countervailing Walloon and Francophone consciousness put the communitarian issue at the top of the political agenda, though it had been moving up for a long time before. With the rise of distinctly communitarian parties and movements on both sides of the linguistic frontier - the Volksunie and the wider Vlaams Beweging (Flemish Movement) in Flanders, and the Rassemblement Wallon and the increasingly 'federalist' Federation General des Travailleurs de Belgique and the Front Démocratique des Francophones in Wallonia and Brussels - the issue reached out and grabbed a reluctant political class by the throat. It could no longer be ignored, as it was creating untenable strains within the as yet still unitary traditional political families under pressure from radicals within their own communities.

    At its highest, in 1971, regionalist parties won 22.3 per cent of the vote and 45 seats in the 212-member Chamber. In 1974, the regionalist share slipped slightly to 21.2 per cent, bur they increased their number of seats to a record 47. Clearly, the regionalist parties were there to stay and had become a force to be reckoned with. This was a clear democratic alarm-bell which politicians could only ignore at their peril. In any case, the old unitary 'Belgique Papa' was fast becoming ungovernable. Business as usual was not an option. New and creative solutions were called for.

    Before looking at the specific remedies introduced stage-by-stage after 1970, which ultimately transformed Belgium into a federal state by 1993, it is important to understand what has aptly been called 'the Belgian method', which has been central to crisis management. Without it, the specifics could not have worked. Let us deconstruct the Belgian method and look at its principal characteristics:-

  • Create a process ...: The first step was to create a process, through various forms of inter-community dialogue, in which creative ideas could be floated and mature, contained until the time was ripe. Beyond each step or phase, beyond each government, beyond each election there was the transcendent process itself. All issues became negotiable, but only within its cocoon. This was a powerful incentive to enter the process and stay in it. It thus achieved a certain independence from each immediate issue and from the contemporary set of participants. A favourite formula beloved of the prime minister Jean Luc Dehaene sums up this aspect very well: "Tout est dans tout" (everything is interconnected) and "Rien n'est décidé aussi longtemps que tout n'est pas décidé" (nothing is agreed until everything is agreed).

  • Include not exclude: This applies both to actors and issues. Part of the delicate art is to bring together just the right actors and just the right package of issues for each phase, so that these as it were quasi-automatically coincide. In fact, composing the group of actors to be brought on board is probably the most important step. Actors tend to bring their baggage of issues. If you bring too many and incompatible issues, there will be no agreement; if too few, there will be no solutions. If this initial choice is well made, the chemistry will begin to work and people will be bound into the process and invest political capital in it.

    This last is vital to success. Overload will likely lead to failure. With underload there will be too few issues to package-deal within. There must be enough for everyone here and now-not just jam tomorrow for those required to make immediate and visible concessions-to get the ball rolling. It is a basic rule of thumb that the dynamism of each phase rarely exceeds a year. Promises and concessions beyond that are, in Belgium at any rate, seen as having little credibility. The 1980 and 1988 phases ran out of steam precisely because one partner felt that he was getting nothing he really wanted out of the process.

  • Flexibility: Belgian negotiators are less interested than others in models and structures with an inner logic or intellectual tidiness than with what works. When, early in the process, no one wanted to admit that they were actually creating a federal state, they just did it and claimed the opposite. There has indeed been only one attempt at a global, coherent settlement - the Egmont Pact of 1977, intended to be implemented over two legislatures. Significantly it failed, but many bits and pieces were recuperated, bent into new shapes and reused, often many years later. It had been too coherent, too explicit. It showed too clearly the final destination, which had to be revealed only gradually.

    Complex, contradictory, inelegant, pragmatic, asymmetrical temporary permanent arrangements, creating a dense institutional thicket, work better. We owe the asymmetrical arrangements between Flanders and Wallonia and Brussels, and elements of non-geographical federalism, to this creative, lateral thinking. This approach mixes affirmation of principles with practical solutions which deviate from or even contradict them.

  • Institutional solutions: A key part of the Belgian method is its preference for institutional solutions. An institutional labyrinth creates shock-absorbers and buys time. Problems can be smothered, lost, 'dialogued to death'. Those demanding radical reform are obliged to define an institutional solution, which then becomes the outer limit of the debate. This approach worked well in relation to Brussels. A balanced institutional approach, consisting of guarantees for the Flemish minority in Brussels going well beyond what their numerical strength would justify, compensated the Flemish concession of 50/50 representation in the federal government and various minority-activated mechanisms in the federal parliament.

  • Leadership style: The process may at times be complex and diffuse-part of its strength-but it always has leadership built into it. It may be a different leadership at different phases: the prime minister, party presidents, special co-chairs (Flemish/Francophone), experts ... Leadership must be directive, but discrete. It must set agendas, ask the right questions, force players out of the bushes by requiring them to respond to options. It must manage time and deadlines intelligently. There must be neither too much nor too little leadership.

  • Civil society: It is often argued in relation to the transitions in central Europe that one of the most serious dysfunctions in the systems that have evolved since 1989 is that formal political institutions have been created without the support of a functioning civil society, acting as a vital, two-way transmission belt between the institutions and the atomised citizenry. Clearly, Belgium does not lack a dense and active civil society - on the contrary. Like all 'pillarised' consociational democracies, there is in Belgium a very well developed pillarised civil-society network, which has been a key underpinning of the Belgian method. The pillarised structure enables the elite leadership of each to deliver 'its' pillar in negotiations.

    When Belgium was a unitary, centralised state, civil-society networks were essentially national, with at most dependent regional 'wings'. The logic of the Belgian approach, based on an institutional decentralisation, was a parallel regional decentralisation of civil society Indeed, many of the issues addressed by the most active civil-society networks have been regionalised or commun-itarised completely under the reform measures - health care, culture, use of languages, education, training, environmental protection, planning and building regulations, housing, public transport and micro-economic intervention, just to name but the most important policy areas. Regional and community civil-society networks have emerged to 'shadow' and influence the new regional and community authorities.

    A national civic society exists less and less. Though some may regret it and there are limits and a downside to this approach, the rapid decentralisation of civil society, in parallel with institutional devolution, has been a positive development.

    It would take too long to give a detailed account of the meanders which over almost a quarter of a century have led from a unitary to a federal state. But the main characteristics of the Belgian federal model can be summarised in ten points:

    1) The basic ground rules are laid down in federal legislation, only amendable by the federal institutions, though the regions and communities do enjoy some limited, but psychologically important, constitutional autonomy, allowing them some independence and flexibility in their own organisation and some additional asymmetry.

    2) The basic texts (the Constitution and Special Laws) provide for some asymmetry, unusual in classic federal systems. Brussels has a special status and special institutions: it is both more and less than simply a region like the other two. The Flemish Region and Community have been fused, whereas the Walloon Region and the French-speaking Community have not, but the French-speaking Region may delegate some functions to the Brussels Region.

    3) There is a complex, limited but significant, financial solidarity between the regions and communities, within but also across linguistic boundaries.

    4) Procedural stabilisers have been built in to prevent political instability-for example, the regional parliaments can not be dissolved. The right of dissolution of the Federal Chamber is now very restricted. In principle, all governments are supposed to serve the full four-year term. At the federal, regional and community levels, a no-confidence motion must be a so-called constructive censure motion- on the German model-proposing a new premier at the same time as removing the old one.

    5) Wide ranging socio-economic powers, as well as cultural and personalised services, have been devolved. Residual powers lie with the sub-regional authorities. This again is relatively unusual.

    6) Some elements of non-geographical federalism are included, through bodies responsible for providing personal services to people in Brussels on the basis of their membership of a given language community, rather than on a geographical basis.

    7) Significant rights to conduct international relations and conclude treaties have been devolved to the regions and communities, without requiring the approval or intervention of the federal government, in those areas where the regions or communities enjoy devolved domestic competence.

    8) There is an Arbitration Court - in all but name a constitutional court-which arbitrates in legal disputes between the various levels of government, and an extensive network of contact committees to prevent and resolve disputes by consultation, co-operation and co-ordination. This is an example of affirming a principle - devolution of power - whilst establishing practical measures to resolve problems of overlap and the need for practical co-ordination.

    9) The system is based on representative democracy only. Direct democracy would threaten many of the delicate checks and balances built into the system and would possibly cause open conflict between communities, if the result of a referendum was different in each - as indeed happened in the only national referendum ever held, on the future of Leopold III after the second world war.

    10) The system is underpinned by complex reciprocal minority guarantees at every level, based on community membership. The federal government must be made up 50/50. The same applies to the cabinet of the Brussels Region. Certain types of bill require a special majority for their adoption-that is, a majority of the members of each linguistic group in the relevant parliamentary body. People living near the language border or near Brussels are accorded some limited facilities for the use of their own languages, in their relations with the authorities, and in some cases they may vote across the language border. Otherwise strict principles of territoriality and unilingualism apply, except in bilingual Brussels.

    What factors will tend to hold the system in a stable balance and what factors will tend to undermine the system and perhaps push it towards separatism? First, stabilising factors:-

  • Political investment: The political parties have invested considerable political capital in the process for a long time. They will not wish to forfeit that lightly. With the exception of the far right, all parties have at least some investment in the process, whether or not they are in government. Indeed the Green parties have never been in government, but they supported the St Michael's Day Agreement of 1993 which was the latest stone in the edifice.

  • Flemish self-confidence: Increasing Flemish self-confidence can lead to longer-term stabilisation, as it could mean that the Flemish numerical majority would lose its dangerous psychological sense of minority status: in Belgium you have a majority with a minority complex and a minority with a majority complex. Were that to become established over time an accommodation between the communities-based on some concessions to the Walloons going beyond their numerical rights - might become possible, creating a climate of greater mutual confidence.

  • Regionalisation: This will permit asymmetrical coalitions and greater flexibility in policies to take account of regional differences, reducing tensions within the system - as each community can go its own way - and potentially simplifying coalition-building.

  • Brussels: Both communities are attached to Brussels - an 80 per cent French-speaking enclave in Flemish territory, though a Flemish city until the 19th century when it became a government city. It can not be geographically divided like Berlin or Beirut, as there is no distinct Flemish part. In the event of separation, it would be an almost insoluble problem to decide what should happen to Brussels. Hence, it has become a separate bilingual region, with strong guarantees for the Flemish minority. The problem of Brussels requires, as it were, the parents to stay together for the child. Otherwise a 'velvet divorce' would be quite likely.

    The paradoxical effort of the rightist Flemish nationalist party, the Vlaams Blok, to extend its appeal to French-speaking people in Brussels illustrates the fact that, for many, Brussels is the last nail holding the country together. The Vlaams Blok is trying to win support in Brussels on the basis that on many key issues-such as security, immigration, education and health-Brussels people would be better off as part of an independent Flanders. To make them welcome, the VB would even permanently guarantee the existing bilingual regime in Brussels.

    There are, however, also destabilising factors:-

  • External factors: Before the end of the cold war, the structure of European states seemed set in stone. It seemed unlikely any new European states would be created. Membership of the EU was also an important argument against secessionist pressures within Belgium and elsewhere. Since 1989, numerous new states have been created in central and eastern Europe. The velvet divorce in Czechoslovakia saw both successor states easily assume the membership of international organisations that had been held by Czechoslovakia, including association with the EU. There is now no longer any international taboo on splitting states, provided it happens-as it would in Belgium-in a peaceful, democratic and consensual manner. The international dimension is no longer a significant stabilising pressure, and indeed the example of Czechoslovakia could offer a model.

  • Lack of national political parties: Traditionally, there were only three significant parties in Belgium, representing the three traditional 'political families': Christian Democrat, Socialist and Liberal. These unitary, national political parties were an important cement, holding the country together. By the mid-70s all three had split into pairs of Flemish-and French-speaking parties, making six in all. There were of course also the community parties and, later, the Greens and the far-right Vlaams Blok. The pairs drifted wider apart and tended to be more concerned about forming alliances or 'fronts' within their own communities, rather than ideological alliances across the community divide. Each pair of 'sister' parties first diverged on community issues, but then increasingly on other issues too.

    Increasingly, there are not only no national parties, but no political families either. There are also increasingly not one, but two-or, with Brussels, three- separate political systems, with different centres of gravity. Wallonia is dominated by the Parti Socialiste (PS) and, accordingly, leans to the left. Flanders is dominated by the Christelijke Volkspartij (CVP) and leans more to the right. In Brussels, the Liberals, with their FDF allies, dominate. The growing distance between the respective members of the three political families, with additionally parties operating in one community only (the VB), will make for distinct coalitions at regional level and eventually for asymmetrical coalitions at federal level. These structural developments are reinforced and in part caused by the absence of national media.

  • Lack of a national civil society: In the reform phase, the disaggregation and decentralisation of the then national civil-society networks was necessary and desirable. It was then supportive of the reform process. In a consociational tradition, such networks naturally gravitate towards the most relevant and effective power centres, in terms of their areas of concern, as well as adopting an instinctive subsidiarity or proximity approach. As power centres devolved, they devolved. Now, this process may have gone too far. It contributes to the growing separation of the two polities. Like political parties, civil-society networks and NGOs could be part of a residual national cement, counter-balancing centrifugal tendencies, if they were able and willing to do so.

  • Finance issues: There have always been implicit inter-regional transfers, as within any state. These have become more visible, and therefore the target of criticism, as federalisation has proceeded. They have seemed to be a one-way street, with Flanders as the net contributor to Wallonia. This has become particularly clear in relation to the most important remaining and increasingly expensive mechanism of financial solidarity, the social security system. Federalisation of social security, and with it financial responsibility, has become a key demand of the most radical Flemish nationalists. For Wallonia, this is regarded as non-negotiable. Failure to reach an acceptable compromise on this issue would be regarded by some in Flanders as a signal that no more could be achieved through inter-community dialogue. At that point some would seek to put separatism on the agenda.

  • Political alienation: Increasingly, these political structures, mentalities, processes and arrangements, put in place between 1970 and 1993, have come under critical attack-as undemocratic, elite-driven, closed, inflexible, outmoded and unresponsive to new challenges. In the past, public support and indeed trust was perhaps more passive than active, but it was available, provided the political system delivered. Now, the system is subject to two different, though related, criticisms: one is essentially substantive while the second is more a matter of style and approach. Worse, the extreme concentration of political energy in one direction has blunted political antennae to new issues, whose emergence has been ignored-with the result that they have been addressed far too late, if at all. This has only served to increase alienation, with a sense that the traditional structures are out of date, out of touch and irrelevant.

    The complex institutional structures, specifically designed to address the issue of inter-community conflict, are not equally appropriate or effective in dealing with the quite different political issues rising to the top of the agenda. These 'new' issues-such as deregulation and labour-market flexibility and downsizing; the environment and urban decay; financing of social and cultural policy; immigration and insecurity; education, family breakdown and drugs; and, above all, reform of the legal and judicial system - cut across community boundaries. They threaten the vested interests that dominate the 'pillars', and the parties that underpin the political system, and are far less amenable to massaging by institutional means. The structures that have been developed will not adapt easily to these new and quite different challenges - and the more unpredictable, more emotional, atomised, single-issue, supermarket, mediatised approach to political issues favoured by a more volatile public.

    This situation is made worse by the second, closely related, leg of the critique. Here, the whole style of politics and compromise - the heart of the Belgian method-is rejected. People are demanding a radically different kind of politics. They reject structures and organisations. They distrust traditional politics and politicians, whose motives are routinely questioned. In short, Belgium is in the grip of severe alienation, or what Germans call Politikverdrossenheit. Hence, the search for a 'new political culture'- numerous reform projects and initiatives to deconstruct the party-political landscape.

    However, with a certain courage and unapologetic candour, Mr Dehaene has asserted, correctly, that this would also require new and different politicians. No one knows where such can be found. Certainly, they could not at the same time preside over a political renewal, in line with populist aspirations, and maintain the painstakingly erected conflict-management mechanism which is the best legacy of the 'old politics'. Something would have to give and, to coin a phrase, hard choices would have to be made.

    At the risk of political incorrectness- because it has become a new conventional wisdom to consider these trends as unreservedly positive - I should like to enter a caveat. These trends can be positive and provide a much-needed stimulus for new thinking and change. We may, though, be in danger of political schizophrenia. Public opinion may want contradictory things. We may be entering a number of very vicious circles. There are dangers in instant, media-driven, populist decision-making, which may turn out to be far from liberating or democratic.

    Wanting more public services, but refusing to pay more tax; demanding more democratic decision-making, but refusing to take even the smallest part in public life, to join a party or attend a meeting; criticising politicians for short-termism whilst refusing to listen to all but the very shortest sound-bite; demanding ever more debate, whilst criticising the political system for its incapacity to take rapid decisions ... The result is a fatal loss of confidence in all senses. Politicians are paralysed and afraid to act, while the people refuse to give them the necessary confidence to do so.

    Certainly, these trends are by no means unique to Belgium. They have emerged all across the democratic developed world, sooner or later and to a greater or lesser extent. They have been more or less effectively managed. Like a late arriving unknown strain of 'flu they have come late to an unprepared Belgian body politic busy fighting a different virus-inter-community conflict. It was quite unprepared for these new demands and new issues. To stay in the metaphor, without effective antibodies the impact was all the more devastating. The Dutroux case, of course a personal tragedy for his victims and their immediate families, could only achieve the impact it did because it was a symbol, a detonator, canalising people's anger.

    Can the Belgian method prove sufficiently adaptable and robust to absorb this new challenge, or will all the carefully constructed institutional responses built up over the past 25 years be swept away by the dammed-up floodwater of public opinion? Can a constructive dialogue and indeed dialectic be established between these new trends, which will not go way, and old structures and methods? That is the key question for the future of the Belgian model.

    Some would seek to divorce the debate about the search for a new political culture from the communitarian debate. This is dangerous and short-sighted. Should the heavy electric charge now coursing around blow the fuses so carefully built into the system, and short-circuit it, separatist tendencies might become uncontrollable and with them inter-community conflict. Optimists (and those for whom the issues of the new political culture are paramount) would respond, perhaps complacently, that violence, or even severe conflict, is unlikely. So they said about Yugoslavia.

    They may, hopefully, be right, but only if the structures of federal Belgium are nurtured and allowed to do their work for some time. It is far too soon to conclude that they have done that work and need no longer be maintained. It would be dangerous to blow the Belgian method out of the water yet. The structures are still needed. Time will tell whether they can adapt to a new and undoubtedly more difficult political environment.


    Richard Lewis of the European Commission (and so, like the speaker, a Brussels inhabitant) responded by saying how Belgium shared the experience of Bosnia or Northern Ireland in being dominated by its history. Thus solutions had only been found when politicians looked forward rather than back.

    The Flemish movement had originally been quite moderate, but as the Walloons had built the state in their own image it had become more extreme. An opportunity had been missed to become a bilingual state in the 30s, as the Walloons refused to speak Dutch even though the Flemings were mostly prepared to speak French. Nowadays, however one could be forced to use Dutch in official dealings in Flemish communes-a requirement arguably in contravention of EU law on the free movement of people. A key factor in Belgium, however, preventing violent conflict, had been the absence of intervention by the 'kin' states of the Netherlands and France.

    The problem of the 'Belgian model' was its 'over-politicisation' of everything. Thus the series of scandals surrounding the case of the alleged child murderer Marc Dutroux reflected the lack of independence of the policing and justice systems.

    Moreover, the fact that the Belgian government was based on communal arrangements-as in Bosnia and Northern Ireland - rather than the rights of citizens within a state meant there was a danger of a 'slippery slope' towards separation, especially as the Flemish- Walloon fiscal transfers weakened intercommunal solidarity. A 'divorce' remained, however, unlikely - and even in that event would certainly be 'velvet', rather than violent.

    Where did the European Union fit in? Current EU trends towards integration were unlikely to turn Brussels into a 'Washington DC of Europe'. Conversely, the growth of 'Euro-regionalism' had been pursued by Flanders in making contacts with other regions - as evidenced at the round-table by the Flemish participant representing the Assembly of European Regions, Hans de Belder.

    Mr de Belder recalled earlier discussion of how identity was contextualised. It was therefore possible, he said, to have a primary identity as Flemish/Walloon and a subsidiary Belgian identity, as well as a European one. In that sense 'divorce' was not an issue.

    He stressed that the protections for the two communities built into the Belgian model fostered better cross-communal relations, and it was similarly suggested that the language barrier was a source of security rather than insecurity. But this view was contradicted by the opposite claim that relationships in civil society between Flemings and Walloons were experienced as being very uncivil. There was a trend towards situational indifference' between Flemings and Walloons, as evidenced by how young Flemings these days learned English or German rather than French. And where did other groups - migrants, for example-fit in?

    Discussion inevitably turned as to why the Belgian case (for all its problems) 'worked', whereas separation between Czechs and Slovaks had proved irreversible. In Czechoslovakia, the right parties had not been brought together with the right issues. Issues had not been addressed professionally but, as elsewhere in post-communist countries, in an emotional and unclear way. Democracy was hard work, whereas nationalists and populists had simple messages, such as in Slovakia that 'we (excluding Hungarians, of course) are the masters now' - even though it was the Czechs who were the principal beneficiaries of the partition, as they sloughed off their poorer partners.

    But it was also argued that, in Belgium, the demand for 'good governance in the wake of the Dutroux affair reflected a profound political crisis. As Lebanon had indicated-when its elaborate power-sharing system collapsed under the pressure of the Palestinian question and demographic changes in the 1970s - even good working models could collapse in a changed context because of their rigidity.

    What was clear was that the intercommunal conflict would never be 'resolved' in Belgium. There would always be 'two communities' whose relationships would have to be managed.

    It was also clear, however, that here the analogy with Northern Ireland ended. The option of separation in Belgium, as indicated, did depend on the absence of significant enclaves within each community. With its sectarian dispersal, Northern Ireland simply did not have that luxury, it was pointed out. The partition of 1922 had thus been a violent divorce and could not be repeated. For better or worse, unless converted into a joint-authority or international protectorate, Northern Ireland only had one option - coexistence.

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