Belgium: Government and Politics

Belgium is a federal state in which amendments to the Constitution that were made in 1993 have resulted in a further reduction in the power of national government. What were formerly national powers have now been granted, at least to some degree, to regional and community governments. First, however, let us examine the various levels of government in Belgium.

FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

The Federal Parliament in Brussels consists of two chambers, the Belgian Senate and the Chamber of Representatives. The Senate (Dutch: de Senaat, French: le Senat), or Upper House of Parliament, now comprises 71 elected senators. Forty are elected directly, 21 appointed by the community parliaments, and 10 are coopted, or elected, by their fellow senators. Distribution of seats between the different political parties is the result of direct election. Before the federal Belgian election of May 1995, there were 184 elected senators. The 1993 reforms replaced the provincial senators, who were appointed by the provincial councils, with community senators.

The electorate is divided into two electoral colleges: one Dutch speaking and one French speaking. There is no German-speaking electoral college, as there is for European parliamentary elections. Instead, the members of Belgium’s German-­speaking community are considered part of the French electoral college. Despite the fact there are two electoral colleges, there are three actual constituencies in Senate elections: a Flemish constituency, a Wallonian constituency, and the constituency of Brussels-Halle-­Vilvoorde, which includes the Brussels-Capital region and the surrounding part of the Flemish region.

Of the 40 directly elected senators, 25 are elected by the Dutch electoral college and 15 by the French electoral college. These numbers are fixed by the Belgian Constitution and roughly reflect the proportions of Dutch speakers and French speakers in the country. The directly elected senators are always elected on the same day as the members of the Chamber of Representatives, and for a term of four years unless the chambers are dissolved earlier. The most recent Belgian election took place in June 2007.

The lower house of Belgium’s Federal Parliament is the Chamber of Representatives (Dutch: de Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers, French: la Chambre des Representants). The chamber has 150 seats, a number determined by the Belgian Constitution. There are 11 electoral districts, each of which corresponds to one of the 10 Belgian provinces, except Flemish Brabant. That province is divided into two electoral districts: Brussels-­Halle-­Vilvoorde and Leuven. The number of seats for each electoral district is proportional to its population. All districts have an electoral threshold of 5 percent, except for the districts of Brussels-­Halle-­Vilvoorde and Leuven. This division results in five Dutch-­speaking and five French-­speaking electoral districts and the bilingual electoral district of Brussels-­Halle-­Vilvoorde.

The elected representatives are consequently divided into two language groups. Currently, of 150 total representatives, 88 are part of the Dutch-­language group, which consists of the representatives from the Flemish areas. Another 62 are part of the French-­language group, which consists of the representatives from the French-­language and German-­language areas.

For the representatives from Brussels-­Halle-­Vilvoorde, thelanguage in which they take their oath as a representative determines the language group to which they belong. Because of the Belgian Constitution, both linguistic communities are granted equal powers in parliament. Although, in general, bills can be passed without a majority of both linguistic groups, bills that relate to specific issues ( so-­called “community laws”) cannot. These require the consent of both language groups. The current president of the Chamber of Representatives is Herman Van Rompuy (Christian Democrat and Flemish).

The Chamber of Representatives elects a presiding officer, the president, at the beginning of each parliamentary term, which starts on the second Tuesday of October each year. The president is assisted by as many as five vice-­presidents—­two of whom are known respectively as the first vice-­president and the second vice-­president, who are also elected at the beginning of each parliamentary term. The president is customarily a member of one of the parties that forms the government coalition. The first vice-president is usually a member of the language group that the president does not represent.

The president presides over the plenary assembly of the Chamber of Representatives. He or she guides and controls debates in the assembly and is responsible for ensuring the democratic functioning of the chamber, for the maintenance of order and security in the assembly, and for enforcing the rules of the Chamber of Representatives. To this end, he or she is given considerable powers. He or she also represents the chamber at both the national and the international level. Finally, the president assesses the admissibility of bills and proposals.

ROLE OF THE KING

The president of the Chamber of Representatives and the president of the Belgian Senate rank immediately behind the king in the order of precedence; the elder of the two presidents takes second place. The presidents of the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate rank above the prime minister.

At this point, we should note that the Senate lost most of its power to the Chamber of Representatives as a result of the 1993 constitutional amendments. The king also lost his power to dissolve parliament, making Belgium’s constitutional monarchy even more of a ceremonial office than it was previously. The Belgian monarchy combines both public and political missions. From a public point of view, the king symbolizes and maintains national unity by representing the country in public functions and at international meetings.

The king does, however, have a number of responsibilities with regard to the government’s formation. The process usually begins with the king’s nomination of an informateur. This individual informs the king of the main political formations that may be available for governance. Following this phase, the king can appoint another informateur or a formateur, who will have the charge of forming a new government, for which he or she generally becomes prime minister.

The king has the right to meet with the prime minister regularly so that he can exercise the power of warning and advice (due to the length of the king’s reign, this can become very important—­as with Baudouin I, who was considered the best informed Belgian). The king is also the commander of the Belgian army, although his role is largely ceremonial. Until Leopold III, the king commanded the army in person, in the field.

Finally, Belgians can write to their king when they encounter difficulties with the administrative powers. This is a well-known option for those who come up against governmental stubbornness, but there is little record of this option having resolved many such difficulties.

SUBNATIONAL GOVERNMENT

We have considered the national government of Belgium and how it is organized. Next, we should also look at the sub-national level and the complexities of government in a federal state that is divided by language in a way that is unlike nearly any other country. Belgium has four levels of subnational government. First is community government, which is divided into Dutch speaking, French speaking and German speaking.

Second is regional government, for Flanders, Wallonia, and the Brussels-­Capital region. Third is the provincial government of the 10 provinces. The fourth, and lowest, level is communal government, which comprises 589 municipalities or communes. These municipalities are the smallest administrative subdivisions of Belgium.

The communities, regions, language areas, provinces, and municipalities are the five most important subnational entities of Belgium, as laid out into the Belgian Constitution. Lesser subnational entities include, for instance, the intramunicipal districts; the administrative, the electoral, and the judicial arrondissements (small administrative subdistricts); and police districts, as well as the new inter-­
municipal police zones (which rank below police districts).

All of the five main entities have geographical boundaries. The language areas have no offices or powers as such and exist only as precise geographical definitions, serving to delimit whatever subdivisions are empowered. The institutional communities are thus equally geographically determined: The Flemish government has legal authority only within the areas of the Flemish and Brussels region; the French-­speaking community has powers only within the areas of the Walloon and Brussels region. Belgian communities do not refer directly to groups of people—­there is, indeed, no subnationality in Brussels—­but rather to specific political, linguistic, and cultural competencies, or responsibilities of the country.

As a result, all communities have a precise and legally established area in which they can exercise their competencies. The Flemish community is competent in the Dutch-­speaking regions and the bilingual area of Brussels-­Capital; the French-speaking community in the French-­language area of the Walloon region and the Brussels-­Capital region; and the German community in the German-­language area, a small part of the province of Liege in the Walloon region bordering Germany with its capital at Eupen.

POLITICAL PARTIES

Ever since the creation of the Belgian state in 1830 and throughout most of the nineteenth century, its politics have been dominated by just two political parties: the Catholic Party and the Liberal Party. The former has always been seen as politically conservative and closely oriented with the Roman Catholic Church. The latter has generally taken an anticlerical standpoint and is politically progressive. In the late 1800s, the Socialist Party arose to represent the Belgian working class who labored in the many new industries. Today, these three groups still dominate Belgian politics, but each of them has evolved in character in different ways. There are also nationalist parties, principally Flemish, and a Green Party.

Because Belgium is a federation with a multiparty political system, there are numerous small parties that have little chance of gaining power alone. They must work together in some way to form coalition governments if they wish to avoid always being in opposition.

The complexity of Belgian politics is compounded by the fact that all Belgian political parties are divided into linguistic groups: Flemish, French, or German. The Flemish parties operate in Flanders and the Brussels-­Capital region, the French-­speaking ones in Wallonia and the Brussels-­Capital region, and some German-­speaking parties operate in the small German-­speaking community.

Thus, political parties are invariably organized along community lines; no representative parties operate in both the Flemish and Walloon communities. Even in Brussels, all the parties that put forward candidates are either Flemish or French speaking, and this situation reflects the duality of Belgian society. Consequently, there are no parties in existence now that operate on a completely national level. After World War II, the national Catholic Party severed its ties to the Church and became a mass party of the center, similar to a political party in the United States. It was renamed the Christian Democratic Party, but this unity was not to last for much longer than two decades.

Until 1968, the Christian Democratic Party was indeed a national political force; however, in response to Belgium’s linguistic tensions, it divided into two independent parties. These were the Christelijke Volkspartij (CVP) in Flanders and the Parti Social Chretien (PSC) in French-­speaking Belgium. Both parties have the same basic policies but are completely separate organizations. The CVP is larger than the PSC and usually attracts about twice the number of votes. These parties always formed an alliance in coalition government but were ousted from office in 1999 after 40 years in government. More recently, the CVP has changed its name to Christen-­Democratisch en Vlaams (CD&V), and the PSC has become Centre Democrate Humaniste (cdH). Small, breakaway liberal-conservative parties were formed after 1999, in both Flanders and Wallonia, but these soon joined the major liberal parties in their respective regions.

Jean-­
Luc Dehaene, who was Belgian prime minister from 1992 to 1995, led a coalition of his own Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. This became one of Belgium’s most important governments, because it successfully transformed Belgium into a federal state in 1993. Then, from 1995 to 1999, he led a second coalition government with a similar composition. This administration was plagued by crises, including the infamous Affaire Dutroux scandal, to which we shall return later.

In recent years, most Belgian Socialist parties have shed the Marxist (Socialist) ideologies in which they were deeply rooted. Although they are still closely linked to organized labor and trade unions, the Socialists have adopted more centrist positions with regard to policies. This makes the Belgian Socialist parties largely similar to the German Social Democrats and the French Socialist Party. Nevertheless, they too split along linguistic lines in 1978. The French-­speaking Parti Socialiste (PS) is principally based in the industrial cities of Charleroi, Mons, and Liege in Wallonia. The Flemish Socialist Party, whose support is less regionally concentrated, became the Socialistische Partij anders (SP.a) in 2002.

The Socialists have participated in several postwar governments and produced some of Belgium’s most distinguished statesmen. The Socialists in Wallonia have focused primarily on domestic issues, whereas the Flemish Socialists have tended to concentrate on international issues. In the past, the latter have been strident critics with regard to issues of European security, and they often opposed U.S. policies. In recent years, however, under the guidance of three Flemish Socialist foreign ministers—­Willy Claes, Frank Vandenbroucke, and Erik Derycke—­the party has moved firmly toward the center and has taken less controversial positions on foreign policy issues.

As with other European Socialist parties, there have been defections by left-wing elements. This has been true particularly with regard to those who object to the “watering down” of Socialism and similar groups within the SP.a and PS who are trying to regain control.

Besides the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, liberal parties also exist in Belgium. These appeal mainly to business-­people, the self-­employed, shopkeepers, property owners, and those who are conservatively inclined. Belgian liberalism is of a moderate, centrist, and conservative variety. Like the other political parties, the liberals are divided along linguistic lines. The Flemish Liberals and Democrats, the Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (VLD), are currently the largest political force in Belgium. The VLD is at present headed by Bart Somers.

During the 1990s, the party chairman was Guy Verhofstadt, who became prime minister in 1999. The French-­speaking Reformist Movement, the Mouvement Reformateur (MR), is headed by Didier Reynders. The MR is a federation of a splitoff wing of the Christian Democrats Mouvement des Citoyens pour le Changement (MCC) and the Brussels-­based Front Democratique des Francophones (FDF), which has a strong electoral share in the capital region.

Until the general election of June 2007, a coalition of Liberals and Socialists governed the country with a sufficient majority in parliament. The election resulted in a considerable upset for the status quo. Guy Verhofstadt, who had held office as prime minister since 1999, was forced to resign when his governing VLD Liberals and their Socialist partners suffered big losses. For the previous eight years, the VLD and its partners had formed a “purple coalition” government under him.

The likely next prime minister is Flemish regional premier Yves Leterme, whose Christian Democrats became the strongest party in parliament after winning almost 30 percent of the vote in Dutch-­
speaking Flanders. No party ever wins a Belgian election outright, however. Consensus is key, and the Flemish Christian Democrats, along with their French-speaking sister party, must forge a sustainable coalition with at least one other group.

THE EUROPEAN UNION

Whatever national government holds power in Brussels, the greater power of the European Union (EU) also administers its very considerable empire from the same city. From its smaller beginnings as the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957, this organization has grown enormously in a half century—­from an initial membership of 6 states to 27 by 2007. This new phase of EU expansion followed the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht (in the Netherlands) in 1992. This treaty led to the creation of the European Union, and to the dropping of the former name. It was principally the result of separate negotiations toward monetary and political union. From this point forward, some EU leaders firmly set their sights on political union and the eventual creation of a federal European state.

The combined economy of the EU now is the largest in the world, with a nominal GDP of €11.6 trillion (US$15.7 trillion) in 2007. The EU has a single market among member states with a common trade policy, a Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policy, and a firmly established regional development policy. Its common standard currency, the euro, has now been adopted by 13 of the member states—­ including Belgium, which switched over in 2002. Since 1993, the EU has begun to develop a limited Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as cooperation in police and judicial matters. The Common Security Policy may lead to the creation of a multinational EU military force that could be used in appropriate circumstances.

THE BELGIAN MONARCHY

To conclude this chapter on Belgian government and the complexities that are forced on it by the linguistic divisions that exist within the country, we should consider how this affects the head of state, the king of the Belgians. This, incidentally, is the correct title, and not “king of Belgium”; the intention is to link the monarchy to the Belgian people rather than to the country. This implies a popular monarchy, whereas the former title might be seen to indicate a constitutional or absolute monarchy that is linked to territory and state.

As a result of the First World War, King Albert I decided in 1920 to no longer use the name Saxe-­Coburg-­Gotha as the official family name of the Belgian royal family. The decision was made without publicity and was not enacted in an official royal decree. Therefore, there is some confusion in other countries, and even in Belgium, that Saxe-­Coburg-­Gotha is the family name still used by the Belgian royals. The family name was changed to van Belgie (Dutch), de Belgique (French), and von Belgien (German). Because Belgium is a country with three official languages, the name was chosen to employ all three versions, with none having precedence over the others. This probably makes the Belgian royals the only family in the world with three different, but equally valid, family names.

The Royal Palace of Brussels is one of the capital’s most striking official buildings. It faces the Belgian Parliament, at the other end of the Parc Royal. The Royal Palace symbolizes Belgium’s constitutional monarchy, but it is not where the king actually lives. Instead, the palace is where the king has his office and exercises his prerogative as head of state. It is also where the king grants audiences and deals with affairs of state. The Royal Palace is home to the services of the grand marshal of the court and the head of the king’s guards. Inside the palace are the magnificent state rooms, where prestigious receptions are held, as well as the apartments that are made available to heads of state during their official visits.

Since 1965, it has been a tradition for the Royal Palace of Brussels to open its doors to the public once every year. Visits are permitted during the summer months, just after July 21, the Belgian National Holiday. However, it is in the suburb of Laken (French: Laeken), just outside the city center, that one finds the Chateau de Laeken, the actual residence of the king and queen. Albert von Sachsen-­Teschen, the governor of the Austrian Netherlands, built this palace as his residence in 1772. After the French took power in the southern Netherlands, it was purchased by Napoleon in 1804. Following the battle of Waterloo in 1815, it next became the property of King William I, king of the United Netherlands. Fifteen years later, when Belgium became an independent state, the palace was presented to King Leopold I as a gift from the Belgian nation. Following a fire in 1890, it was rebuilt and enlarged, and it became the permanent residence of the royal family during the reign of King Leopold III.