Sunday, 23 January 2011

Belgian shame rally: can ideology be fought with neutrality?

Today more than 34,000 Belgians marched in a demonstration across Brussels demanding that the country's bickering politicians reach a compromise in the ongoing talks to form a government. Belgium has been without a government for 224 days now, the longest government-less period for any European country since the end of the Second World War. As the political crisis continues with no end in sight, there are increasing worries that this could finally be the end of the line for this country, which may be on the verge of splitting into separate Dutch-speaking and French-speaking halves.

I was out at the "Shame Belgium" march today and I was impressed by the very large turnout. It was particularly notable because the demonstration was not organised by unions or political parties, as is usually the case, but rather by a group of five young people via Facebook. The demonstration had no political or regional allegiance - organisers even said it didn't even have an official unionist or separatist stance. In fact the organisers even discouraged people from bringing Belgian flags, though clearly everyone chose to ignore that advice. The stated purpose of the rally was simply to demand that the politicians urgently get on with their negotiations to prevent the country descending into crisis.

Two things stood out to me at today's demonstration. For one thing, I noticed that there was a distinct lack of Dutch voices audible in the crowd. In fact, I would venture to guess that the vast majority of people demonstrating today to preserve the country were Francophone. There were signs in Dutch, but I talked to two different people holding those signs who in fact turned out to be Francophone. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that it is the Francophone parties that fear the break-up of Belgium and the Dutch-speaking parties who often speak of a break-up as an inevitability. But despite the large turnout today, if there was a low Flemish turnout it may have been disappointing to the organisers, several of whom are Dutch-speaking from Flanders.

Also noticeable in their absence were ethnic minorities. Muslims (mostly Moroccans) make up 25% of the population of Brussels, and yet I didn't see any at the march. This would confirm what opinion polls have suggested, that the large Muslim community in Belgium is not particularly interested in whether Belgium splits apart or not. Given that so many Muslims in the country feel alienated from Belgian society, perhaps that isn't surprising.

The other thing I was thinking about today while talking to people at the demonstration was that it reminded me a bit of Jon Stewart's "Restoring Sanity" rally in Washington DC last year. Both events were essentially not really "about" anything and were supposed to be non-ideological and non-partisan. In both cases, the demonstrations simply wanted politicians to stop bickering, start making compromises and get back to the business of governing. They were both calls for action, without specifying what action should be taken.

But though they were both supposed to be non-partisan events, anybody at either rally could observe that the attendees were from one specific side. At the Restoring Sanity rally the vast majority of attendees were liberals in opposition to the right-wing media which had organised a "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington a few months earlier. At today's demonstration in Brussels the vast majority also seemed to be from one specific side, Francophones who want to see the country stay together. But the spirit of the day asked people to ignore that observable reality, since it was supposed to be a neutral, non-affiliated event.

The Restoring Sanity rally left many in the US wondering what the purpose of such an event was. As TV commentator Bill Maher noted, "If you're going to have a rally, you might as well go ahead and make it about something." It seemed especially strange when the other side in the US, the attendees of the "Restoring Honor" rally held by Glenn Beck and Fox News, had a very ideological demonstration. The same could be said for the theoretical opposition to today's demonstration - those who want Dutch-speaking Flanders to separate from Belgium. When Flemish separatists have rallies, they don't shy away from very openly proclaiming an ideology. They certainly didn't when they showed up along the march route in a counter-demonstration, sparking a clash with the demonstrators caught in the video below by The organisers of today's rally avoided taking any side or expressing any ideology. But can ideology really be fought with neutrality? Or must the opponents of an ideology (in this case, Flemish separatism) present their own competing ideology to fight it?

Today's event could have left an observer wondering, "why?" Why keep Belgium together? The placards and chants from the demonstrators seemed to suggest that the answer is 'because we should keep things the same'. But is that a convincing argument to convince those in Flanders who want to split the country that they should rethink their ideas? Because even if some kind of solution is found to the current political crisis here, then what? What happens next? Isn't Belgium eventually just going to descend into another bout of political chaos within two years or so? Clearly something has to change because the situation as it stands has become untenable. But what should change? Answers to this question were not evident at today's event.

However the event's organisers are right that in the short term, a government needs to be formed urgently. The longer this political chaos goes on the more likely it is that Belgium could be the next European country to fall prey to the debt crisis. Already the country's sovereign debt has been downgraded because of the political situation, and the debt markets are starting to focus in on the country's instability.

An intractable situation

So why have negotiations gone on so long? After the previous government collapsed in April of last year, an election held in June yielded a polarised result - the centre-right Flemish nationalists won an overwhelming victory in Flanders, while the Francophone socialists won an overwhelming victory in Wallonia. This is how the country lines up at every election - conservative in Flanders and socialist in Wallonia. Although Flanders has more people (roughly 60% of the Belgian population) seats are allocated in a way meant to ensure that the government does not become dominated by Dutch-speakers. This means that the two main blocs, the Flemish conservative nationalists and the Wallonian socialist unionists, must form a coalition between them in order to govern.

The wealthy Flemish want more autonomy for their region and less connection to poor Wallonia. But the country has already been so heavily federalised that there is really only one big thing that remains national - taxation. The Flemish nationalists are tired of having tax money from Flanders, where unemployment is less than 6%, go to Wallonia where the unemployment rate is around 15%.

With debt markets circling overhead like vultures, the negotiations to form a government have now largely become a game of chicken. The Flemish nationalists are hoping the Walloons will give in and agree to giving Flanders more financial autonomy for fear of what will happen if someone doesn't give in soon. The Walloons are surely hoping the Flemish come to that conclusion before they do. But as both blocs stare each other down, it could end up being both sides who lose. If a compromise isn't found soon, Belgium could be headed for a world of trouble.


Tom said...

According to a survey done for Le Soir, with 1.000 participants and a 3,5% error-rate, about 44% of the people in the demonstration lived in Brussels, 35% in Wallonia and 21% in Flanders.

Chris said...

A lot of family groups were speaking Dutch. And the students who were having 'sing offs' when march split in two at the tunnels with the other side were always in Dutch.

Jean-Yves said...

Same experience here. As the march progressed and we walked upstream from its tail, we grew more & more dispirited from hearing so little Flemish. So we reverted to speak Flemish between ourselves. I was also appalled at the almost complete absence of ethnic minorities. Surprised, not so.

Dan said...

About the lack of minorities. Traditionally, Belgian patriotism has always been very low-key. Of course, that doesn't help with this alienation feeling you talk about.

Anonymous said...

Summary of the Belgian situation:
Flanders: "Honey, we spent too much money. We need to save more..."
Walloon: "Sure, no problem. We will discuss it later. But give me first your creditcard. I want to go shopping..."

Joachim Beckers said...

"Can ideology be fought with neutrality?" is really not the question here.

I'm convinced that it can be, in a sense that rejecting all nationalist ideologies (Flemish nationalism, Belgian unitarianism, ...) is at the same time a form of neutrality and an ideology as well.
I personally cherish my Belgian nationality because it is a non-nationality, representing not one closed, exclusive group of people, but just about anyone living in this country. I feel that a lot of young, modern people feel the same way.

However, all that is not the issue here. The issue is that it should not be possible or acceptable for politicians to procrastinate for so long, whatever the reason (or the excuse).

Anonymous said...

It is conspicuous that the only one who comments in a nationalist way, identifies himself as "Anonymous"...