Middling Kingdom

‘A people with no trace of nationality and without political intelligence – in fact, the most insufferable creatures alive. Fortunately, a certain apathy prevents them from inflicting too much damage.’ Leopold I, airlifted out of the lower German nobility and onto the Belgian throne in 1831, when republicanism and democracy were still seen as dangerous synonyms, had mixed feelings about his move to Europe’s youngest state. His new kingdom was to serve as a Catholic buffer zone between post-Napoleonic France and Britain’s maritime hubs on the continent – a thankless position for a Protestant nobleman with global ambitions, who resented the constitutional strictures imposed on him by ‘those Belgians’. After Leopold’s death in 1865, the parish priest initially refused to bury his body.

In one sense, Leopold’s observation has clearly stood the test of time: Belgian political folly rarely registers beyond the country’s national borders. The accidental centre of Europe, home to some of the West’s most powerful institutions, including NATO and the EU, is remarkably unknown and unloved abroad. When the country features in foreign commentary, the same few motifs are repeatedly invoked: a kingdom at the crossroads of the Old World, a rough strip of motorway between Paris and Amsterdam, a modern office space for the lords of globalization. By and large, the nation is viewed as a historical curiosity, its contemporary realities overlooked.

According to the The Economist, Belgium is ‘the world’s most successful failed state’. Afflicted by a dysfunctional justice system, mountainous debt, a gridlocked party democracy and rising Islamist extremism, it nonetheless boasts one of the highest GDPs-per-capita in the developed world, one of the most unionized economies on the continent, a robust civil society, generous social security schemes, a large and prosperous middle class, and a Walloon Socialist Party (PS) that has ably resisted the worst effects of Pasokification. It is also home to the most successful far-left outfit in Western Europe, the PTB/PVDA: Belgium’s only genuinely national party, consisting of a core group of militants who have built an effective digital operation while retaining strong ties to what remains of the country’s labour movement.

Unlike the UK, Belgium’s post-industrial economy has ducked many neoliberal policy trends, and its regional minorities have been granted proper political autonomy. Unlike France, it has openly practiced a form of postcolonial amnesia, placing strict controls on migration from its former empire. Belgium is less financialized than the Netherlands, and its housing sector is less prone to asset inflation. Though it displays many of the usual symptoms of the twenty-first century – regional inequality, political polarization, bureaucratic inertia, multicultural friction – the country has managed to maintain a state of relative stability. In the Pax Americana and the age of value-added, export-oriented industry and specialized services, Belgium stumbled upon an inelegant yet durable method of managing decline.

Decline is still decline, however, and the coming year portends profound difficulties. In the run up to decisive elections in 2024, panic is gradually setting in. Ministers and party leaders are resigning; the Flemish far-right is plotting to break through its cordon sanitaire and ascend to government; Flemish nationalists are hoping for a ‘confederal’ breakthrough to push the two regions further apart; the far left continues to rise in Flanders and Wallonia; and Brussels is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Can the Belgian model survive such shocks?

The strangeness of the national mood was captured when Conner Rousseau, the telegenic leader of the Flemish Socialist Party – recently rebranded as Vooruit (‘Forward’) – was hit by a damaging series of scandals just as his party was surging in the polls. He reportedly exchanged ‘sexts’ with minors and misbehaved at an awards show where he dressed up as a giant rabbit and took to the stage to perform pop songs. Although the initial charges were dropped, it’s rumoured more will follow. In recent weeks, the right-wing blogosphere has been rife with speculation on Rousseau’s alleged misdeeds. In an apparent attempt at damage control, the party leader posted a choreographed video on social media, produced by former sports commentator Eric Goens, announcing that he was coming out as bisexual. It was sent to journalists with a large cheque enclosed. Soon after, the press began attaching disclaimers to its coverage of Rousseau’s reported indiscretions: none of the accusations had been proved, and there was probably nothing to see here.

The timing of the revelations was conspicuous. With the election looming, Rousseau’s swelling popularity threatened to alter the coalition prospects in Belgium’s notoriously complex democratic system. With a population of eleven million and a land mass the size of Wales or Maryland, Belgium has six official governments – one federal, five regional – and three linguistic communities. Regionally, the country is divided between Flemings, Walloons and Brusselians; linguistically, between Dutch-speakers, Francophones and German-speakers. The large northern region of Flanders is among the wealthiest in Europe, while the smaller southern region of Wallonia – once the site of smoke-stack steel mills, textile factories and mines – is comparatively poor. In Belgium’s 150-seat federal parliament, cobbling together a multi-party coalition is the sine qua non for any successful cabinet formation.

According to the most recent projections, the Flemish far-right party (Flemish Interest) will win 22 seats, up from 18, while right-wing Flemish nationalists (N-VA) will gain 20, down from 25. The Flemish liberals, known as Open VLD, are expected to fall from 12 to 6 seats; the Walloon Socialists will move from 19 to 20 and the Flemish Socialists from 9 to 16. On the far left, the forecast is even more impressive: the PTB/PVDA will supposedly leap from 3 to 8 in Flanders, 7 to 10 Wallonia and 2 to 3 in Brussels. That brings the party’s overall tally to 21, higher than that of the PS – a striking anomaly amid the waning of left-populist agitation elsewhere on the continent.

The success of the left at federal level, however, contrasts with an emergent right-wing bloc in Flanders – opening up the possibility of a coalition between Flemish Interest and the N-VA. Previously, the latter was able to win over much of the far-right electorate with its programme of tactical confederalization: a radical regionalization of power over taxes, economic policy, and social security – without a unilateral declaration of independence. Yet after almost twenty years in regional government, the N-VA’s promised confederal overhaul has not come to pass; and next year is seen as its political eleventh hour. Flemish Interest, for its part, has picked up N-VA voters through its fusion of welfare chauvinism and unapologetic separatism, proclaiming that Flanders must break out of its Belgian cage as soon as possible.

At present, though, the more likely outcome of the ballot is the so-called ‘Vivaldi option’: a continuation of the coalition that has reigned since 2019, whose party colours reflect the four seasons: Walloon and Flemish liberals, greens, Christian-democrats, and socialists – the Belgian equivalent of Germany’s GroKo. Yet the parliamentary arithmetic also allows for other combinations, such as an exclusively left-wing, or red-red-green coalition (one is tempted to call it the ‘Portuguese option’), comprising the PTB/PVDA, Vooruit, the PS, and the Flemish and Walloon greens. How plausible is such a Popular Front à la belge? The PTB/PVDA has already laid out its conditions for participation in government: a break with EU austerity, setting the retirement age back to 65, and a tax on millionaires – policies that the more conservative green parties are reluctant to adopt for fear of crossing their European partners. Yet the prospect of a progressive federal cabinet, however distant, has made the right uneasy.    

Belgium’s current political prospectus can be traced back to the uneven and combined development of its post-war economy. In the nineteenth century, Belgium was the original home of finance capital – a mighty merger between commercial and investment banking, the factory and the insurance fund, embodied by the powerful Socièté Générale bank. It was able to foster an industrial sector in Wallonia that surpassed countries with much larger landmasses. At its peak, the Socièté Générale Belgique was not just the country’s largest holding company, directly or indirectly controlling about 20% of Belgian industry; it also held interests in 1,261 concerns, including in steel, diamonds, insurance, chemicals and munitions.

None of this survived two German occupations. The Socièté never reinvested its profits in new, specialised industries, preferring European buy-outs, cartel arrangements or lazy price-fixing. In the 1950s, a section of the radical left trade union ABBV/FGTB proposed a package of ‘structural reforms’ to kill off the vieille dame and bring the economy up to speed with Sweden, Germany or France. This programme was never considered by the Belgian elite, who were able to cling to power partly with the help of uranium profits from Congo during the nuclear age. Meanwhile, a younger proletariat in Flanders entered the new industries – petrochemical engineering and oil – springing up around the river delta in Antwerp. By this time, the country’s economic coordinates were locked in place: regional conflict between Walloons and Flemings, competition from foreign producers and American hyperpower. After 1960, the Congolese colonies were officially lost, the industrial base was depleted, and Flanders received proper regional autonomy. Throughout the 1970s, Belgium’s antiquated institutions were steadily dismantled and its economy restructured for globalization. The old elite was ushered off stage, and the country’s economic axis rotated northwards, to the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. Under American military supervision, Belgium prepared for incorporation into the deflationary EU.

The result was what the Italian buyer of the Socièté, Carlo de Benedetti, called ‘nightcap capitalism’: living off dividends of the previous century while stubbornly refusing to adapt to the present era. The competitive threat from US and German steel was never seriously met. Instead, Belgium’s industrial crown jewels were auctioned off in the 1970s, leaving Wallonia’s economic landscape barren and derelict. The region was never able to produce a Volvo or a Phillips; Wallonia continued to rely heavily on transfers or became a service provider to Brussels as it remade itself as a ‘Washington on the Senne’. Flanders, however, profited from its international ports and oil production. Servicing the new multinationals, its brand of capitalism resembled that of the export entrepreneurs in the Italian North; today, its elites are mainly concerned with labour supply and international competitiveness; they care relatively little for domestic demand or corporatist bargaining.

The Flemish employers’ organization VOKA has thus spent the last decade calling for limits on unemployment benefits. Flanders-based SMEs, in particular, are crying out for more labour and lower wages to keep the Northern export economy going. Since an open borders policy is politically impossible in a region increasingly rapt by visions of the Great Replacement, the only remaining option is to activate the large number of unemployed Walloons. VOKA capitalists believe that this stratum lacks basic discipline due to the ‘hammock’ of social security – something its counterparts in East Germany or northern France have learned to live without.

In west Flanders, French workers from Lille and Dunkerque are already called upon to fill labour shortages. On this basis, employer organizations are pushing for more commuter routes across the language border: just as the Flemings once went to work in the south, the Walloons must now come to Flanders (‘If the mountain won’t come to Moses, Moses must go to the mountain’, as one commentator recently reflected). The N-VA, vanguard party of Flemish capital, has vigorously promoted this agenda, pushing for so-called ‘degressivity’ (the reduction of unemployment benefits over time), an end to Belgium’s remaining wage indexation schemes, and the establishment of state control over benefit payments currently handled by union administrations. As Western Europe’s wealthiest party – supported by a real estate empire and swathes of state subsidies – the Flemish nationalists, even when on the electoral retreat, have the pockets to finance their neoliberal offensive.   

Attuned to such dynamics, the PS State Secretary and rising star Thomas Dermine has been making an indirect appeal to this rising bloc of Flemish investors. A novice in the party elite, who joined the Socialists after stints at McKinsey and Harvard, his aim is to effect a form of regional reconciliation. As he sees it, Belgium’s regions must learn to work together in a changing economic climate – which, in practice, means freeing up more Walloon resources for Flemish businesses. ‘The Flemish economy is facing a lack of space and personnel’, he claims, and ‘Wallonia has a large labour reserve, and fallow land by the dozen.’ Instead of Walloons commuting to West Flanders, Dermine wants the North’s SMEs to head south and establish enterprises there. By extension, the PS would be able to maintain its regional hegemony while heeding the demands of Flemish nationalists for further regionalization.

This, it seems, is the brutal alternative to a red-red-green ‘purchasing power coalition’. Belgium is facing the radical deconstruction of its social security system with Walloon Socialist assent, alongside a slow process of Flemish Orbanization. Whether this can be avoided is still uncertain. But it will likely require a degree of political intelligence that Belgium’s first king failed to detect in his subjects.

Read on: Anton Jäger, ‘Rebel Regions’, NLR 128.