Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Politics made easy: the beer example.

As I was browsing through some articles in Belgian newspapers, reading up on the political situation there (after more than 450 days of negotiations, Belgium still has no government!), I came across a very interesting and clarifying post by a certain Mark Pollentier.

First some background information. Belgium is a parliamentary monarchy, meaning that we have a king, who officially is head of the country, but basically has only ceremonial powers. Elections between a multitude of parties put in place a parliament and a senate, with the Prime Minister coming from the party with most of the votes. The northern part of the country is Dutch speaking (Vlaanderen, or Flanders), and the southern part is French speaking (called la Wallonie). There is a very small part in the east that is German speaking, annexed after the first world war as compensation. Brussels, the capital, is officially bilingual Dutch-French, but lies entirely in Flanders. (Please bear with me, there is a point to this that involves beer!)

There has been a lot of animosity between the Flemish majority and the politically more powerful French speaking part, since the beginning of the country in 1830 (a rebellion against the Dutch king Willem I, instigated by French agents and with French money and aid). From this moment on, the French speaking part and the upper and middle class in Flanders, who also were French speaking, would regard Flemish as an inferior language, reflected in one policy after another. Examples are numerous: Flemish (a regiolect of Dutch) was initially not recognized as an official language of the country, it took about 70 years before the Equality Act of 1898 ruled that the written text of laws and royal decrees in Dutch would have the same legal value as those in French, and only in 1932 was Flemish officially the language for education in Flanders. This developed the territorial principle: the official language is determined by the location. This means that in Flanders, Flemish is the primary language, in Wallonia French, and Brussels, the capital, would get a bilingual status.

In modern history, Belgium has been divided in 7 parts: 3 regions, based on territory (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-capital), 3 communities based on language (the Flemish, French and German speaking communities), and a federal level governing above these regions and communities. In Flanders, the region and community were combined to ensure a more streamlined and efficient system.  (See the Wikipedia page here for an overview and more background)

Now, back to the beginning of the story. Today, Belgium still has no government, since the elections of June 13, 2010. One of the main, if not the most important stumbling block in the negotiations between the Flemish and French speaking parties, is the electoral jurisdiction Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde. As it overlaps the bilingual Capital and several Flemish counties, it creates a lot of conflicts. The French parties are trying to expand their influence in the Flemish ‘randgemeenten’ (peripheral municipalities) around Brussels, to create a large Brussels Capitol Region under their control. These municipalities have large French speaking communities, who received special privileges, called ‘facilities’, meaning they can receive official documents and services in French, even though they are living in Flanders. These ‘facilities’ were meant to be phased out, but they have only been strengthened.
The Flemish demand to end this bundling of Brussels with a part Flemish electoral region was enforced by a Supreme Court ruling, with a deadline of 2003, which has still not happened (meaning that all electoral results are de jure invalid because violating the constitution). The French speaking parties demand compensation for the split of this electoral jurisdiction, the Flemish oppose that and insist that there should be no compensation to execute the constitution.
So, there you have it, a very quick overview, still incredibly complicated. This text I mentioned earlier does a much better job. Which clearly must be because it uses beer as the vehicle to explain this situation. Here goes:

Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) explained with beer:
Every evening your new neighbor comes by to drink a nice cool pint of beer: he happens to have no fridge yet.

So you gladly allow him the beer out of your fridge (facilities).
But days become weeks, weeks become months and months become years, and your neighbor now feels so at home at your place that he decides what and when can be drunk (the contrarian mayors of the facility-municipalities who refuse to speak Flemish).
When you bring that up to him, he reacts furiously and seeks the support of his family who lives down the street (the French speaking people in Brussels).
They support the behavior of your neighbor, and demand you open up your house for the whole family (continued ‘frenchification’),
whereby your fridge becomes property of the family (attaching the facility-municipalities to Brussels),
but where you still have to keep the fridge filled daily (financial transfers from Flanders to Wallonia and Brussels).
When finally the peace justice declares that you are right and that the neighbor has to go drink his beer with his family (ruling of the Supreme Court),
the neighbor and his family demand that you buy them a fridge (compensation for the French speaking), and that you come fill it again daily (continued financial transfers).
That is what BHV is all about!

Why be complicated, if some beer can help explain it so much better?

Cheers, and 

3 comments: