In the world of constitutional design, few things could be more ironic than a country that at the same time is home to the unofficial capital of the new Europe just as its own political and constitutional future is increasingly under siege. The New Flemish Alliance Party (NVA), which advocates a peaceful breakup of Belgium and the establishment of an independent Flanders, became the largest political party in Belgium, having received about 17.5% of the popular vote in Sunday’s general elections, translating into 27 seats in the 150-seat parliament. The largely francophone Socialist Party won 26 seats. The Christian Democratic Flemish Party, once an ally of NVA, received another 11% of the popular vote (17 seats). Much like in neighboring Netherlands where elections were held last week, a compromise coalition government appears inevitable. And the fact that Belgium is about to hold the EU presidency from July to December will surely calm things down a bit. However, this has still been the strongest showing of a secessionist party in the history of Belgian federal politics. As some readers will recall, in 2004 Belgium’s Court of Cassation approved a lower court ban on the Flemish extreme right-wing separatist Vlaams Blok Party. The party resurfaced as Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) a few months later. The more moderate NVA appears to have managed to attract some of VB’s supporters, although the VB still garnered 8% of the votes (12 seats).
Following a 1993 constitutional amendment, the constitution establishes a federal framework, with Flemish and Walloon regions and subunits alongside Brussels as a federal district. As in other economically uneven federations (e.g., Bolivia, Nigeria) fiscal federalism is a major issue. A series of constitutional amendments granted both regions legislative autonomy in areas such as education, agriculture, energy, and environmental protection. However, in the core fiscal issues of social security, labor, and key aspects of taxation regional autonomy is relatively limited. Flanders wants more regional autonomy in these areas as it is better-off economically than the French-speaking Walloon region and has been sponsoring hefty cash transfers to the Walloon region, where uneployment rate is notably higher and average household income is lower. A push towards more devolution of power to sub-national units alongside cuts to equalization transfers is expected.
And then there is the language issue. Much like the Quebec versus anglophone Canada situation, language wars, constitutional and otherwise, have dominated Belgian politics for quite some time now. The constitution designates three communities (Dutch speaking, French speaking, and German speaking), and four language regions (Dutch, French, German, and bilingual Brussels). The Constitutional Court (created in 1993 as the Court of Arbitration and elevated to a Constitutional Court in 2007; comprising of six judges of Flemish background, and six of Walloon background, with two chief justices) has repeatedly dealt with the language issue. A court ruling in 2003 held that it would be unconstitutional for Flanders to require schools in French-speaking enclaves to teach in Flemish only. Flemish parties countered by arguing that Walloon residents of Flemish cities do not make any effort to acquire Flemish linguistic skills. Most recently, the Court held unconstitutional a complex voting scheme that would allow French speakers living in Flemish towns jut outside of Brussels to vote for French language parties in the Brussels region, even though they live in a Flemish area. As the political system remains deadlocked on the issue of language, all signs (in either language . . .) indicate that the Constitutional Court will soon find itself in a boiling political cauldron yet again.