Is Belgium the Future of Britain?

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme

It’s been a turbulent week in Belgian politics. The country, created in 1830, is often referred to as the capital of Europe as it is home to the major institutions of the European Union. But Belgium has long been wracked by a divisive language dispute, pitting the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north against their French-speaking neighbors, the Wallonians, in the south. The linguistic division is reflected in the broader political division and structure of the country. 

Belgium is a federal state [glossary], with much of the political power of the country devolved to the regional and local governments. The devolution of political power in Belgium (and the broader federal structure of the state as well) were part of a series of efforts to maintain the political unity of the country in the face of intensifying linguistic divisions.

There are twelve major political parties in Belgium, each vying for seats in the national parliament, which are granted on the basis of proportional representation [glossary]. Parties are divided on the basis of ideology and language. Thus there are two Green parties, one for the French-speaking Waloonians and another for the Dutch-speaking Flemish. There are similarly two socialist parties, two nationalist parties, two liberal parties, and so on.

The sharp divisions in parliament make it difficult for governments to establish coalitions. Indeed, in a not-so-surprising development on Monday, the Belgian Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, tendered his resignation after the Flemish liberal party withdrew its support from the coalition government. The collapse of Leterme’s government comes just five months after he cobbled together a power-sharing agreement brining in his own Flemish Christian Democrats, the Open Flemish Liberal Party, the Waloonian Reform Movement, the Waloonian Socialist Party, and the Waloonian Human Democratic Centre Party.

The collapse of Leterme’s government is the most recent in a series of short-lived coalitions attempting to govern the country. In the last crisis, Belgium was without a national government for nearly six months as parties squabbled over the composition of the cabinet. But the timing of the most recent crisis is poor, coming just two months before Belgium is scheduled to take over the European Union’s rotating presidency. Snap elections have been scheduled, but there is little reason to believe the new parliament will be any more successful than the previous one in developing a stable coalition government. Belgian newspapers are already forecasting the dissolution of the country into two separate states, with headlines like “Bye-Bye Belgium.”

At the same time, British elections are shaping up to be an interesting affair, with many observers forecasting a hung parliament divided between the three major British parties (the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democratic Parties), each controlling a portion of the parliament but none able to establish a majority coalition. Add to that regional tensions, pressure for greater devolution of political authority to the governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and you’ve got the recipe for some tumultuous politics.

But is Belgium the future of Britain? It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it’s not likely. Belgium’s political divisions run far deeper than Britain’s, and the linguistic divide is probably stronger and tenser than the United Kingdom’s nationalist divide. There are far fewer viable parties in British politics as well, thanks in part to the first-past-the-post electoral system [glossary] used there.  That said, is Britain winds up with a hung parliament, we could likely look forward to more British elections in the not-too-distant future.

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