Belgium: Preparing the next state reform

Will the Flemish parties succeed in imposing the break up of the national labour market policy?

After the elections of June a state reform, a new revision of Belgium’s state structure, has to take place. This would be the sixth revision of the Belgian Constitution since 1970. The Flemish nationalist forces interpret the existing law as laying down that from June 2007 the electoral districts for the federal Chamber elections should be the provinces and therefore the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) has to be split. This is because BHV puts together part of the Flemish province Vlaams-Brabant with Brussels Capital Region. But this would rob French speaking people living in the Flemish region around Brussels of a number of electoral rights. BHV is the last bilingual electoral (and legislative) district. No solution to this legal problem was found by the last government, despite heavy pressure from the Flemish government (Christian democrats, social democrats and liberals) who put the split of BHV into their government declaration, although obviously cannot decide on such a thing themselves.

Brussels is the capital of Belgium, of Flanders (region and community) and of the French speaking community. It is a very multicultural city and its services are officially bilingual. Language wise it is composed of about 50% French speaking Belgians, 10% Dutch speaking Belgians (Flemish) and 40% immigrants, French being the vehicular language. Brussels is a much fought for French speaking enclave in Flanders, being surrounded by small Flemish towns. About 20 Flemish mayors of councils in the region Halle-Vilvoorde are refusing to organise the elections of June 10th, seeing these elections as "illegal". They also did this in last elections, which forced the provincial governor to step in to get them organised. If they get their way and BHV is split without concessions to the French speaking people in Halle-Vilvoorde, these people will no longer be capable of voting for the French speaking parties in Brussels or of using their own language, French, in court or when dealing with local officials.

The French speaking parties however state there is another "solution" to this legal problem, notably an enlargement of the bilingual capital Brussels into its immediate periphery. This refers to the six "facility communes", where French speaking people are mostly in the majority and where they have "facilities", which include among others the right to receive official documents in French. This would still mean abandoning those French speaking people outside of this "bigger Brussels", who are in some cities and towns a bigger minority than the Flemish in Brussels, but it would limit the damage. However for the Flemish parties bilingual enlargement is unthinkable, as unacceptable as a raw split of BHV is for the French speaking parties.

Most people are not concerned by this kind of issues. After months of nationalist bickering a sort of "save Belgium"-reaction is clearly to be seen. Big French speaking newspapers, in the case of Le Soir together with the Flemish newspaper De Standaard, have made extensive polls to examine public opinion in Flanders to find only small minorities to be in favour of the policies proposed by all Flemish politicians and parties – in a poll by De Standaard and Le Soir 10% expressed in favour of a split, 15% in favour of more regionalisation, 50% for a more unified Belgium. The support for returning to a unitary Belgium (thus dropping the regional and community structures!) thus proves to be quite a lot bigger than the support for a split of Belgium. Although this support for a unitary Belgium probably shows more how people are bored with this nationalist bickering between the leaders of the two main communities, than it shows a real willingness to go back to the old structures.

The real danger and the real discussion are not about BHV, a theme that has been magically thrust unto the scene of negotiations between the communities for more than 20 years now. More importantly most Flemish parties demand a split in the federal labour market policy to give the regions full responsibility in this field, the SP.a sees this as their main demand in the upcoming state reform. The "reason" given is the big and growing differences on the labour market between Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia. That is the reason that is given by the OECD as well, which calls for a full regional split of labour market responsibility.

The Flemish bosses, organised in Voka (mostly smaller companies with no links to Wallonia), are quite open about their reasons to be in favour of this. They have declared, when they made known their traditional list of demands (lower taxation for business, further cuts in labour cost, further flexibility etc.) in the running up to the elections, that they want a radical reform of the labour market. They want it all over the country, but they reckon it would be easier to already get it in Flanders if the labour market policy is regionalised. And they’re most probably correct: the CD&V/NVA, the biggest Flemish alliance both during the last elections and in current polls, already calls for a "Flemish Generation Pact" in which they do not have to take into account the PS, the only possible reason being that it would be more brutal than the federal Pact.

The two big trade unions continue to declare their opposition to a split in labour market policy, national wage negotiations and social security. They correctly see any of these as a fast track way of losing all workers’ gains of the past. At this point the only party openly in favour of a split of social security is the Vlaams Blok, the Christian-democrats wanting to split only parts of social security, but in all parties (except maybe the greens) there are leaders declaring in favour of such a drastic measure. In the SP.a this tendency is represented most by the hated Flemish Minister of Work and Education, Frank Vandenbroucke, author of the drama called the "active welfare state" or the job policy of both the previous purple-green (coalition of social-democrats, liberals and greens) and current purple (social-democrats and liberals) federal governments. Calculations show that a split of social security would impoverish Wallonia enormously, making one in four Walloon people officially poor.

If the Flemish parties can impose the establishment of homogenous regional responsibility on the labour market policy, the very realistic fear is that in time the national wage negotiations and social security (based on contributions paid on wages) would follow suit. Any party defending workers’ interests, be it in Wallonia, Brussels or Flanders would have to oppose any such measure. The CAP clearly aligns itself on the trade union position and rejects the "divide-and-rule" policy of the bosses. The CAP, originally an initiative that was born in Flanders, also states clearly now that it wants to build a national party and has begun to develop everywhere in the country, except in the German speaking part where so far no CAP branches have been set up. After the elections the CAP should try to get contacts there as well, although that could prove more difficult because of the local domination of the Christian-democratic workers’ movement.

Generally we see a good development of the CAP in the areas. If the CAP decides to become a party, it would immediately be the largest national, all-Belgian party, easily overtaking the small Stalinist/Maoist PvdA/PTB. But although within the CAP there is a clear rejection of the nationalist programme on both sides of the language border, the CAP has not had the time to discuss deeply about and develop a proper programme with its own demands on the national question. That surely has to happen before and in the run up to a founding party congress. Within the CAP the LSP/MAS will campaign for the new party to take on "the right to services and jobs in your own language" as the main demand, next to a series of demands that can create unity between Flemish and French speaking workers on this field.

On the question of the French speaking minority in Flanders and the Flemish minority in Brussels, the language policies adopted by the traditional parties consists in hiding cuts in services behind "language measures". An example of this is that in Brussels city services all "nominated" personnel, i.e. those with a public services work contract, who have a good pension and who in principle cannot be fired and have to be given another public service job if their present one is cut away, have to be bilingual French/Dutch. This condition is creating bitterness amongst the many unemployed in Brussels where unemployment is at 21 % and 98% of unemployed do not speak Dutch. This in turn is used by all 19 (French speaking) local district mayors within Brussels as an excuse to keep more than half of their personnel on worse work contracts. This is because you do not have to be bilingual to work contractually for the Brussels services, which is what most personnel are doing. But they miss out on all the advantages of "nomination", while the Brussels authorities get cheap personnel and at the same time sell this policy as "giving work to French speaking people" (and "not giving in to Flemish pressure").

This dangerous game that the established politicians are playing for their short turn interests leads to all sorts of discrimination and humiliation in the everyday life of ordinary people. It has got no mass support, as different polls consistently show, but there is no mass protest either. People are rather indifferent to it and do not see the immediate danger, the main reason being there is no workers’ party with sufficient roots in the population to defend another programme, another idea. What is required is a fighting party defending the rights of all workers, independent of the region in which they live and the language they speak, a party that sees democratic and social rights as the only solution to the national question.

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