When not to choose is to lose

When not to choose is to lose

The rendition of my speech held on March 16 2013 in the ‘De Schelp’ in the Flemish Parliament on the occasion of the symposium ‘to cut the Gordian knot’ by the Flemish People's Movement (Vlaamse Volksbeweging). It was my final speech as the movement's political secretary. 

The Flemish People’s Movement, ladies and gentlemen, wants to inspire and feed the thought process. As an active movement in the Flemish political society we must occasionally transcend the bustle of the day. Today is a good day to do just that.

We are not a political party and especially on a symposium like we are holding today we want to rise above party politics. The question ‘which road is the right one to take’ will not be answered today. It will not even be discussed. Today we want to examine the question of our goal and why this is our aim. Because what’s the use in talking about which road to take when we don’t know where we’re going?


It happened in the 1930's. Separatism triumphed in our region with the foundation of Belgium. Flemish nationalists lived there too and at first they were good and loyal Belgians, but then things went wrong. Belgium did not prove to be a country to love, despite all Flemish patience. The Flemish nationalists promptly began waving banners with the word ‘autonomy’ written on them. South of the language border one could also hear occasional requests for some more breathing space. The solution was called federalism, a form of government that, next to an overall national governing authority, also consists of regional states.

Wikipedia defines the term as follows: “it describes a system of government in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units (such as states or provinces).

The states often receive a great amount of self-dependence. In federations that have been created in the past by independent states, for example Switzerland, the USA, etc., the national (or federal) level only exists by the grace of these states. In federations created by a central power, for example the Russian Federation, this is hardly (or not at all) the case.

A state that is part of a federation is called a federal state or a confederation. It's sovereignty is therefore divided between the whole and the parts that partly have their own legal order.”

I can reassure those who don't think highly of Wikipedia that more scientific publications do not differ much from this definition. Everyone can imagine that this technique may well work in some cases. Article 1 of our constitution leaves no doubt that Belgium is a federal state. The Flemish got Flanders without the Belgians giving up Belgium. Because many feel they are both, applause rang everywhere.

According to that same Wikipedia 27 federal countries exist for 194 recognised states. However, we like to make an abstraction from the Dutch case, notwithstanding our sympathy for the crumbs that are Aruba, Curacao and St Martin. Some of the resting 26 federations have many inhabitants, others spread out over a large territory, the small states of Micronesia are far apart, Switzerland is the result of a very special history.

Sui generis

Every federation has its own story but that of Belgium doesn’t seem to fit. We sometimes call it federalism ‘sui generis’, because political science doesn’t really know what to do with the Belgian solution that is frequently labelled as 'creative'.

The multiple locks that have been built in the system are hardly present in other federal countries. The phenomenon of co-existing regions and communities is unknown anywhere else. Our regions have a demarcated territory, two communities compete against each other in the capital region of Brussels which got itself a full region status.

The special stature of Brussels is noticeable. Federal capitals are often excluded from the structure of states and are a communal region for the whole country. The dominant politicians of ‘our third region’ were able to push through their ambition of making Brussels an equal state. This means, but is rarely noticed, that Brussels can’t play its role as a neutral national capital in a believable way.

But probably Brussels' special situation is not even the most remarkable characteristic of the Belgian federation. This country also has a strikingly small amount of states. Austria, which has about the same amount of inhabitants as this country, has nine Länder, Switzerland (less than eight million inhabitants) consists of 26 cantons. Russia tops the list with 83 states. We also know the 50+1 states of the USA. The Comoros only have three, three separate islands by the way. And Belgium? Well, we’ll say: “three according to the gendarmerie, four according to the organizers”. We don’t really know it ourselves and we haven’t even decided if we have states anyway.

Hors catégorie

When we look at the ratio between the number of inhabitants in the largest state and the total amount for the whole country, Belgium completely falls outside the ‘normal’ federal model. Strange that no one ever pays attention to this fact. Only 6,5% of the total Nigerian population lives in the largest state; in Russia this is only 7%. India already reaches 14%, Iraq 17,5%, Brasil 21%, Ethiopia 29%, Canada 37%, Pakistan 43% and Micronesia is the big exception with 50%. For the USA the number is 12%, Germany reaches 22% and Austria 20%. The average for 25 federal states shows us that about 22% of the total population lives in the largest state and 78% does not.

Even far above Micronesia (which was already an exception), at a lone and unreachable high, we can situate Belgium. Even when we limit Flanders to the region, that state holds over 60% of the population. Compared to the average of 22% that amount is about three times higher than the average.

This is about much more than an innocent math game. There’s an obvious difference in quantity between California (37 million inhabitants) and the USA (310 million inhabitants). North Rhine – Westphalia has 18 million inhabitants, Germany has 82 million. It is not hard to understand that these states can perform very different tasks from the national government. One is closer to the people, the other benefits from the economy of scale.

But why make two governments at such a short distance from each other like we see in Flanders and Belgium? It is not a coincidence that this situation is unseen worldwide. Both levels lose their role when they are so close to each other. Flanders is too big for Belgium and Belgium is too small for Flanders. Belgium does not have an economy of scale, Flanders is numerically not closer to the people. Belgium and Flanders are naturally predestined to compete against each other. They cherish the same ambitions because they belong to the same weight class. Belgium and Flanders do away with each other.

Ingrained collision

This imbalance in figures shows us that the Belgian problem cannot be solved by the methods of federalism. That technique is being used in an improper way in this country and thus being abused. Federalism would have worked in theory if the provinces were named as states but nobody asked about that. What could have been federalism has nothing to do with the Belgian problem and the Belgian problem has nothing to do with the essence of federalism.

This mistake is one of the most important reasons why the Belgian model is intrinsically unstable. This is why the collision between governments is ingrained in the Belgian system. This is why it is hopeless to  draw clear lines between these two sticking levels of government. This is why homogenous competences will always be an illusion in this country. Even worse, the more state reforms, the more friction we’ll see. The idea that classical state reforms can provide a homogenous division of competences is at odds with the fact that these classical state reforms have created these collisions in competences.

The price we pay for the administrative congestion caused by Belgian federalisation is high. Us Flemings, know two full governments very close to each other, two parliaments, two administrations, two regulators, two tax services, two of everything and definitely not for the price of one. It becomes even more complex for a Fleming who lives in Brussels.

The consequences are not hard to guess. Here we find a substantial part of the answer to the question why we have such massive debt while our government(s) only too often function below standard. This is why we don’t get any value for our money (good governance in exchange for those high taxes we pay). Such an oversupply of governments causes unnecessary rulemaking. Parliaments, members of parliament, governments: we all expect them to do something. The more institutions we have, the more rules, the more obligations, the more prohibitions. Creating two governments on a piece of land the size of a handkerchief leads to a waste of means and democratic inefficiency. Installing two stoves in a kitchen does not create a nicer meal, but is expensive to install and the gas bill will be higher.

No choice

This is the price we pay for the lack of courage on a political level. The process of Belgian state reforms just created new governments without dismantling existing ones. The Flemish Nationalists asked and got Flanders. The Belgian minded ones wanted and got to keep Belgium. The Belgian reformers did not have the courage to say no to the proponents of autonomy for the states nor to shut up the defenders of the Belgian status quo. Belgium excelled in not making a choice.

People try to hide that lack of courage behind slogans such as ‘More Flanders in a strong Belgium’. Everyone know the reliability of these kind of empty slogans and yet politicians that want to please everyone keep using them. Some would call this ‘populism’. The consequence is a system in which none of the levels can operate in a decent way. Belgium loses in substance because of the transfers of competences and money, the states are not really allowed to substitute.

If we want to break free from the administrative chains we have to make a choice. We already made that choice in 1991 and ask for the extension of a full Flemish state parallel to the dismantlement of the Belgian state. Those who are afraid to bid Belgium goodbye must not be afraid to choose for the Belgian option and abolish the regions and communities.

A Flemish state within Belgium can be of use to make sure that the transition to full autonomy does not lead to chaos. But we do not want a Flemish state that doesn’t get any space to be a full government and stays part of the Belgian model.

Choosing that Belgian option also means choosing the abolition of all bolts, parities and insured presences of the then non-existing French minority.  One cannot plead the survival of Belgium and ask for confederal defence mechanisms when it is in one’s advantage.  You either are a Belgian or you aren’t. Those who choose this option, must do it straight and live up to the majority rule.

I want to repeat we do not support this option. From the Flemish point of view, such a Belgian-Unitarian solution has an imperialistic tendency and I don’t feel the need to tell Arlons or La Louvière how they should govern. We want a Flemish state that replaces the Belgian one on our side and a Walloon state that does the same on the other side. This is why we reject a Flemish pseudo-state as our final destination. We will take a pass on a subordinate Flanders.

More Flanders in a strong Belgium is the wrong choice to make with a bill that will be too high. It is irresponsible to definitively lumber our people with two governments on a level where other countries just have one. We can no longer have the luxury of a Flanders in, with, under or next to Belgium because it pushes us onto a path of permanent administrative friction and paralysis.

The only choice that we should submit to our people is the choice between Flanders or Belgium. Choosing one means abolishing the other. Those who picture it differently and suggest that there is room for a meaningful Flemish state in a useful Belgium is guilty of political cowardice.

To be something…

Today one of our new Ministers said in ‘De Standaard’: “I’m a very convinced Fleming who wants to see the center of gravity move further towards Flanders, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also be a good Belgian or European”.

I’m convinced he meant it well. I can even understand that it’s more pleasant to believe that the combination of being Flemisch and Belgian is a real option, because saying goodbye is something people dislike by nature. Our message is not the most pleasant one.

But just because the wool over the eyes creates a beautiful illusion doesn’t mean it isn’t fake. We have to remove the wool over Flemish eyes.

Considering the difference in size between Flanders and Europe both levels are not by definition incompatible. August Vermeylen already told us long ago that we are Flemings to become Europeans.

When we proclaim that Flanders and Belgium are incompatible it is not because I don’t want that but because it isn’t possible, unless we accept an awful large amount of administrative effectiveness and expedience. The mantra of being a good Fleming and a good Belgian at the same time is completely worn out. Yes, you can be a good Flemish person in Belgium, but in the political meaning of the word you have to choose.

August Vermeylen is often only quoted half. Right before his famous sentence “we want to be Flemings to become Europeans” he says “to be something, we have to be Flemish”.

This brings us to the conclusion: to be something, we can no longer stay Belgians.

(De Nederlandse versie vindt u door hier te klikken.)

Toespraak van 16 maart 2015, hier in Engelse vertaling geplaatst op 8 oktober 2015. -  TEST

Foto: © Belga

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