Belgium and the failure of consociational democracy

For many centuries the European continent was ravaged by blood-spattered wars of conquest and violent disagreements between territories but in the modern era of European military peace the scars of these wars are prevalent in countless European countries. From the animosity between ‘native Latvians’ and Poles in Vilnius to the long standing quarrelling and tension present in Belgium between the Flemish and the Walloons, the scars of previous battles permeate to the core of modern society.

Attempts to quell the political tension caused by deep seated social cleavages stem in the main from Lijphart who observed affected countries in the 1960s. He noticed that countries like The Netherlands, Austria and Belgium who had experienced volatile clashes between ‘native’ groups had developed and stepped in to modern democracy in similar ways. The political elites pioneered co-operative mechanism that they hoped would percolate through society and ease ethnic tensions. Lijphat labelled these methods ‘consociational’ and believed their application could begin to soften cleavages and mold a previously divided country into a single national identity. Methods of consociational democracy include being governed by grand coalitions, the use of proportionally representative electoral systems and the implementation of devolution or federalism. Whilst not a infallible theory Lijphart’s views does offer an interesting perspective on the ethnically motivated political tension experienced in some European countries. Just like the theory consociational methods are not full-proof but they have been shown in some situation to alleviate hostility.

This article however will ignore the ‘pythons’ call to ‘always look on the bright side of life’ and instead centre in on Belgium and consociational democracies failure to assuage the ill feeling associated with social cleavages. Belgium’s problems derive from its formation, having been created as a buffer state in 1830 due to the catholic revolt in the south of The Netherlands. This created a nation divided across the linguistic lines of the Dutch speaking Flemings and the French speaking Walloons. This partition has only increased in recent years due in part to the decline of religion which used to provide a common platform between the two groups. The Flemings have always been in the majority accounting for around 60% and the Francophone’s constituting around 33%. Although linguistic parity existed at the beginning the Francophone’s came to dominate until tensions came to a head and a Flemish backlash resulted in a restoration of linguistic parity. Both World Wars created further strain on the relationship with many Flemish people feeling they were collectively and erroneously labelled as ‘collaborators’ whilst Wallonian collaboration when virtually unpunished. Another huge point of contention is the well known capital city of Belgium; Brussels. Historically it has been the capital of Flanders but in recent history it has seen a Francophone majority.

All of these incidents and many smaller ones continued to fuel hostility until in the 1970s the party system shattered along linguistic lines and Belgium repositioned itself as a devolved state until it embraced full-blown federalism in the 1990s. As well as devolution and federalism Belgium tried other consociational methods such as grand coalition governments where national governance is shared between the two linguistic groups and cabinet position distributed evenly. With proportional representation part of the electoral system all facets of consociational democracy have been tried but instead of alleviating the ill feeling it has reinforced the linguistic social cleavage that exists.

With none of the mechanisms employed subduing the Flemish demands for independence or at least the creation of a confederation the question has to be asked; why has consociational democracy failed in Belgium? One contributing factor could be due to the overhanging history of years francophone rule over the Flemish. Bad blood still exists due to Walloon dominance and the Dutch contingence of Belgium refuses to bow down to the pressure of creating a single Belgian culture and identity. A further circumstance that fuels the distancing from the Walloon’s is the bizarre nature in which industrialisation has occurred in Belgium. Flanders is a thriving economic region with many new industries and vibrant commercial sector where as Wallonia is a stifled region struggling in these difficult economic times meaning it relies heavily on Flemish subsidies. The Dutch speaking Belgians having to economically support Wallonia is not something the Flemish are happy to do and further contributes towards the distancing of the two linguistic groups.

The Long term viability of Belgium is open to question and although consociational democracy has gone a long way to alleviating social cleavages in European countries all it has served to do in Belgium is reinforce the divide between the linguistic groups. Instead of uniting them, consociational democracy has enabled Flanders and Wallonia to operate fairly autonomously with both regions having directly elected assemblies that are in responsible for a great number of issues. Whilst Flemish independence is far from imminent it is not an unthinkable permeation of the tension present in Belgium.