Trying to understand the Belgian political order is like trying to understand the lyrics of the song, “Two Mosquitoes and a Fly.” Do you know that song? No, you don’t. Neither do I. I just made it up. Get it? What political order? It’s a mess.
But we expats have no choice but to figure out the way things work in this country which is now our home. Much like the schizophrenic weather of Belgium, this messy political structure will descend on us sooner or later and one way or another.
In his article, Making Sense of Belgium, Martin Vieira Dieste spoke of how taxing it can be to get registered in Belgium alone or to navigate around the country’s social security system due to chaotic bureaucracy. Even road regulations such as speed limits differ from one region of Belgium to another. These are just some of the realities we will have to face as expats.
So let’s take a quick tour around the wacky world of Belgian politics starting with the very basics. We will have to do this slowly and gently to avoid a heart attack or a nosebleed.
There are three operative words to keep in mind when describing the Belgian system of government. One, constitutional monarchy. Two, parliamentary. And three, federal. You can arrange those three words in any order as long as they are all there. Do not mix and match.
As a constitutional monarchy, Belgium’s head of state can only be a king or a queen as opposed to a republic where the head of state is a president elected by the people. The monarchy is an inherited position and the monarch’s powers are limited by the constitution.
Parliamentary basically means that the head of state is different from the head of government compared to a presidential system whereby both state and government are headed by a president. In present Belgium, we have King Philippe as the head of state and Prime Minister Charles Michel as the head of government.
Now we get to the bottom of this whole mess: Belgium’s federal structure. There are many different ways of looking at it. The system is so complex even the Belgians themselves cannot agree on a single explanation. Let’s just say political power in Belgium is shared and divided between the federal authorities, three communities, and three regions.
The federal authorities are the King, the ministers, state secretaries, the Prime Minister, and the federal parliament consisting of the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives. The three communities are identified on the basis of the three languages spoken in Belgium: Flemish, French, and German. The three regions are composed of Flanders in the north, Wallonia in the south, and the Brussels-Capital Region.
Another way of putting it is that Belgium has six different governments, each with its own parliament: the federal government, the Flemish government, the government of the Walloon Region, the government of the French Community, the government of the German-speaking Community, and the government of the Brussels-Capital Region.
Confused yet? You’re never alone. Ever wondered why Belgians typically look tired, subdued, or expressionless? It’s not because they’re fed up with life. It’s because they’re sick and tired of pondering their shambolic political system. Les pauvres Belges spend five to six years studying their government in school only to find that by the time they graduate, the whole government system has changed.
Belgium’s political structure has evolved at least six times since 1970. One of the major reasons behind these reforms is the never-ending power struggle between the Flemish and the Francophones. This political conflict has been brewing since Belgium became an official country in 1830. Blame it on Europe’s history of zoning and rezoning its territories without consideration for people’s linguistic and cultural differences.
You would think disagreements would most likely arise only between the Flemish and the Francophone. But the sheer complexity of the political system is such that it can breed disputes even among fellow Flemish and fellow Francophones especially since they don’t always agree on how the system really works. If you happen to be around during such disputes, your job would be to remove any bottles or cans of Belgian beer within reach. Politics mixed with alcohol is very bad news. And two, bottles and cans are potential weapons.
We expats can leave the squabbling and the bickering to the Belgians. But we have to care about what’s going on. We’re now in the same boat as the Belgians. And if that boat rocks as it often does, it affects us all.