1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Governance (2000 - 2009)

Ethnic Structure, Inequality and Governance of the Public Sector in Belgium (Draft)



Belgium is a divided country. A linguistic borderline between the French and Dutch divide runs from west to east. In 1830 – when Belgium was created as a new state – the language of the people involved in politics was French. With a small majority of the population not speaking French but Dutch, this would gradually make the use of language a major political issue.

Yet the conflict never became violent. Not one single shot has been fired in this ethno-linguistic conflict. It has been the origin of many fierce debates, of governmental instability and a major financial crisis. In the long run however, the conflict between the language groups was to a certain extent pacified. This was done by using the logic and technique of conflict management that had become fairly familiar to the Belgian political elites: consociational democracy. It is a technique of conflict avoidance. Conflict is avoided by granting a large degree of autonomy to the groups in conflict, and by obliging them to move together or not move at all for all matters that remain common.

This consociational democracy led in this case to a deep reform of the Belgian state. The former unitary state became a federation of regions and of language communities. The Belgian federation is extreme in the degree of autonomy that it has given to the language groups, and is extremely complex in its attempts to provide checks and balances at all levels of political decision-making.

In this report the author looks at the history, and explains how Belgium was created and how the tensions between the language groups gradually built up. Next he looks at the political parties. One of the striking features of Belgian politics is the falling apart of Belgian parties into unilingual parties only participating in elections in their own part of the country. It reflects the deep divisions between the language groups, but at the same time it makes it very difficult to keep a legitimate and responsive democracy alive.

In the third part of the report, the federal reforms are presented in some details because the way in which the modern Belgian state is built reflects the way in which the language groups have been separated and yet still need to accommodate each other. In the fourth and final part, the author further explains how ethnic minorities in Belgium are defined and protected.

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