Confederal Belgium in the making?

N-VA hopes to trigger 7th state reform to turn Flanders and Wallonia into quasi-sovereign countries · Parties and experts admit another state reform is likely, but not to the extent the pro-independence party wants

A Belgian flag hangs solitary on a bulding in Liège, Wallonia.
A Belgian flag hangs solitary on a bulding in Liège, Wallonia. Author: Jurjen van Enter
As Belgians prepare to go to polls 26 May to elect their regional, federal and European MPs, the debate over the adoption of a confederal system has once again gained tract. The issue of confederation has been this time resurfaced by conservative New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) —the main pro-independence party of Dutch-speaking Flanders— as their stated goal for the 2019-2024 term. But what is the real chance for the N-VA to convince others to such a radical change in the structure of the Belgian state?

Having been born a unitary state in 1830, Belgium gradually adopted a federal system of government through six subsequent state reforms between 1970 and 2011. Such an evolution gave birth to different sets of political parties —Flemish, French-speaking, and German-speaking— and to a complex set of political institutions that include three main layers, not taking into account local government: the central (federal) level of government, the regions —Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels, which have jurisdiction over land-related issues and economy—, and the communities —Dutch-speaking, French-speaking, and German-speaking, which hold powers such as culture, language, health, and education.

The result of this, according to Patricia Popelier, professor of Law at the University of Antwerp, is that “we already have a federal system with confederal traits. For example, it is practically impossible to make decisions at the central level without the support of both [main] language groups,” that is the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking.

Some Flemish parties, however, believe that the current federal setting does not grant enough autonomy to Flanders, where the regional and community institutions have been merged since 1980. Most vocal in these approach are the N-VA and far-right Vlaams Belang, both of which strife for full independence for Flanders but share government nowhere, as political deals with the far-right party are anathema in Belgium. Meanwhile, centre-right Christian Democrat and Flemish (CD&V) favours enlarged self-government within Belgium, in what they call a “positive confederal” model.

The N-VA leads the current Flemish government, in a coalition that includes CD&V and liberal Open VLD.

The liberals, and especially left-wing parties, are not so vocal in demanding further autonomy, while French-speaking parties in Wallonia and Brussels —either left or right— are mostly opposed to more devolution. As regards anti-capitalist Workers’ Party —the only one that operates as a single Belgian party throughout the whole country—, it seeks recentralization of powers where “regionalization produces inefficiency” and the reinforcement of “Belgian unity.”

Confederation as N-VA’s intermediate step towards independence

N-VA leader Bart de Wever has in the past been clear that his party, which relies its strength on a conservative constituency, seeks everything but a “revolution.” That is why the pro-independence party has for years proposed a new evolution —the seventh reform of the state— that would not completely break up Belgium, but that would turn the country into a confederation instead, with the hope that it sets a comfortable base from which Flanders will one day take the last step to full independence.

The party decided to freeze the proposal for the entire 2014-2019 term, in which it joined the federal government in a coalition led by liberal Francophone Charles Michel. But De Wever and N-VA’s former Belgian minister of Interior Jan Jambon have now taken again the idea at the forefront, dubbing it the party’s “highest ambition.”

What is it about? The N-VA’s proposal has that Flanders and Wallonia become the two member states of a confederal Belgium in which the Brussels capital region —which would be largely self-governing— and the German-speaking region would keep a special status. The two constituent states would hold all powers except for a few they would transfer to the confederation on a voluntary basis.

“The model that the N-VA is proposing is a bit hybrid”, says Bart Maddens, professor of Political Science at the University of Leuven. “It indeed has a confederal character in that the N-VA wants to drop the [current] Belgian Constitution and have a confederal Constitution, which would rather be a treaty between the two confederated states of Flanders and Wallonia. But contradicting that, they also want to keep Belgium as a member state of the EU, which is more typical of a federal arrangement.”

According to the N-VA’s proposal, the Parliament of Belgium would no longer be directly elected by citizens, but would be made up of MPs designated by the Flemish and Walloon parliaments, with specific representation from Brussels and the German-speaking region.

“I see a democratic problem in that model”, Maddens goes on, because “if Belgium is kept as an EU member state, the Belgian government will continue to take important decisions, given the fact that being an EU member entails an important role for the Belgian government —for its ministry of Foreign Affairs, for instance. If there is no direct legitimation for that government, I see a democratic deficit there.”

A not-so-straight path

“Democratic deficit,” by the way, is also the concept that Jambon recently floated to argue for confederation. According to him, there exists a problem in the fact that Flanders usually votes for right-wing parties while Wallonia often leans to left-wing or liberal forces: “We are the only ones with a plan to overcome that democratic deficit, not only in Flanders, but in the two democracies that this country has. That plan is called confederalism.”

But, how workable is the way towards confederation?

In order to get to a confederal model, the Constitution must be amended, but the procedure requires several steps and reinforced majorities, as Popelier recalls: “First, the government and a majority in the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate”, the two chambers of the Belgian Parliament, “agree upon a list with articles that are opened for amendment; second, elections take place; and third, the new government and Parliament act as constituent and can amend the Constitution, but only for those provisions included in the list and with a 2/3 majority in the Chamber and Senate (and 2/3 of the members present).”

The Belgian Parliament sits in the Palace of the Nation, Brussels. / Image: Dimitris Vetsikas @ Pixabay

This implies a “first legal barrier”, Popelier says, which is “to find a majority for this list. This seems improbable” given the fact that, as said, French-speaking parties do not support structural changes in the federal makeup of the country. But even “if a list were approved, the next legal barrier is to find a 2/3 majority. Moreover, the government is also part of the constituent, and composed on the basis of language parity. It is already very difficult to find a 2/3 majority, let alone to convince the Francophone parties in the government to agree with a confederal constellation.”

According to opinion polls, the N-VA and Vlaams Belang could capture some 28% and 10%, respectively, of the Flemish votes in the 26 May election, giving them considerable clout in Belgian politics, but not to the extent to put them anywhere close to such majorities.

“By the moment, the chances for the N-VA to garner a majority of Flemish and Francophone parties to support its plan are non-existent,” Maddens believes. Popelier agrees: “[The chances] are very low at this moment. Vlaams Belang would probably support this,” but together with the N-VA “they currently have less than 40% of the votes in Flanders. That is far from reaching a majority on the Flemish side,” Maddens recalls. In Flanders, the Greens —expected to make important gains— are very critical of the confederal idea, while in Wallonia, all the parties are against it, Popelier and Maddens agree to point out.

The N-VA, however, believes that sooner or later —maybe after the 26 May election— it will again be proved that government formation, as has been the case several times before, is a hard task in Belgium. After the pro-independence party left the Belgian cabinet in late 2018 following a disagreement over the UN migration pact, De Wever said: “Everyone is assuming that after elections, things can only get worse. Well, if that’s the case, then the system is broken and unhealthy.” It is in that scenario that the N-VA argues it will be able to prove and convince others that the confederal proposal is the best solution for stability.

A more limited (or adjourned in time) reform could be easier to reach?

Another way to look at this is what would happen if a more limited reform of the Belgian state would be proposed to CD&V and possibly other parties such as the Socialists and Open VLD. “CD&V wants to seek a consensus with the other Flemish parties in the Flemish Parliament for a seventh state reform after 2024,” party sources tell Nationalia. The centre-right party officially favours confederalism, but one of a different flavour, maybe more leaning towards what has been traditionally understood as federalism: “[Ours is] a positive confederal model that focuses on the federated states. In contrast to what N-VA proposes, the positive confederal model of CD&V differs from independence. ‘Positive’ means that it does not start from blocking and folding back on ourselves. We look for the best possible cooperation based on our own strength.” According to Popelier, CD&V has confederalism “as a goal in itself, not as a way to the eventual dissolving of the Belgian state.”

Furthermore, centre-left Socialist Party Differently (SP.A) concedes that “it is certain that another, seventh reform will follow, but an extensive state reform is very unlikely to materialise in the immediate future, as any subsequent state reform must first be properly prepared” in order to “provide the Flemish people with the best possible services from the government. The way in which the institutional landscape is shaped must ensure security and must offer protection. That requires a clear division of competences.”

As regards confederalism, SP.A sources tell Nationalia that it can be ruled out any option for that in the short term, but “it is, however, possible to thoroughly evaluate the division of competences during the next legislature in order to prepare a realignment of powers which will make a more complete and sensible policy possible.”

Opinion polls credit CD&V with some 15% of the Flemish vote in the upcoming election, while SP.A appears poised to receive 11-12% and Open VLD, 12-14%.

What could this less far-reaching reform look like? A longstanding bone of contention has been the split of the social security system, which in Belgium remains largely centralised at the federal level, organized by the National Social Security Office. Pro-independence parties are off course in favour of splitting it, while most of the remaining reject it —the more to the left, the more against.

“Maybe the chances of having a partial split of the social security are somewhat larger” than reaching a confederal system, Maddens argues, as “child benefits —which are part of the social security system— were devolved to the regions in 2014. Now, for instance, CD&V is more or less for splitting health care, but not unemployment benefits or pensions. But again, the Francophone parties are against that.” Popelier recalls that other challenges should also be overcome if social security were to be split: “How to organise it for Brussels, with its mixed population?”.

One way or the other, could a limited reform be agreed upon? “Officially, the N-VA says that it is either black or white, that if they cannot get the confederation in full, they do not want any reform,” Maddens says, “but that is just the official stance. If there would be an opportunity to get more powers for Flanders, even under the current system, I suspect that they would not forgo that. In that scenario, the Francophone parties could see themselves somewhat forced to accept a negotiation on a reform of the state if on the Flemish side there would be enough will to make the formation of a federal government dependent on a reform of the state. It would also depend on the financial situation of Brussels and Wallonia: if they needed more money to fund their governments, maybe the Francophone parties could accept. But I do not think this will happen during the next term.”

Popelier adds: “At this moment, especially at the Francophone side, there is no will to open negotiations. As it stands now, it seems that no list for constitutional amendment will be approved. This means that for the next five years, the Constitution is locked, unless midway the Parliament decides to approve a list and have interim elections, which would be a first, and is very improbable.”

Still, the Antwerp professor concedes that “it would be possible to have a ‘minor’ state reform, similar to the fifth state reform we had at the beginning of this century. In that case, more powers are transferred to the regions through the special majority law. This requires a majority in each language group (the French and the Dutch) and an overall majority of 2/3, in both the House and the Senate. Again, finding the political will for this reform will remain the difficult point.”