Welcome to Belgium!

The Belgian political scene

You will want to know briefly what the political situation is in the country where the IVth International Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns is being held.

Belgium is in the process of shifting from a unitarian to a federal structure. Considerable powers in areas such as economic arid cultural policy have been passed to the regional governments of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. This process is due to be continued in the present parliament, with directly elected regional parliaments and devolution of further policy areas (perhaps social security, agriculture, environment, culture and - strangely enough and hotly contested by peace groups - some aspects of foreign policy and trade like, for example, arms trade) to the regional governments. The traditional political parties (Socialists, Christian-Democrats, Liberals) have since long split into separate Flemish and French-speaking parties. Only the two green parties (Agalev in Flanders and ECOLO in the French-speaking areas) form a single group in the Parliament. In Flanders the VU-Volksunie (People's Union) a liberal regionalist party with a progressive wing, and founding member of the Rainbow Group in the EP, should be distinguished from the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block), an extreme-right nationalist party with openly racist policies. It is also important to note that even though our German-speaking minority is very small, it has full cultural autonomy and self-government on a par level with the other two communities (for cultural matters).

Last autumn, the coalition between Socialists, Christian-Democrats and Volksunie fell on the question of arms exports by the Walloon industry which met with strong opposition from the Flemish side. At the last national general elections, on November 24, the Vlaams Blok made sweeping gains, reaching a score of 10% in Flanders (but 25% in Antwerp. the main industrial town, and even 33% in certain suburbs of Antwerp). This led to a broad-based anti-racist march in Brussels in March 1992, and the emergence in Flanders of civil society, cross-party movements, called Hand in Hand and Charter 91, to combat racism at the local and grass-roots level.

The current government is a coalition of Christian-Democrats and Socialists, with the promise of support on key votes about constitutional reform from the Volksunie and the ecological parties Agalev/ECOLO. The right-wing Liberal Party is trying to form the nucleus of a new right-wing grouping.

Welcome to Brussels!

There were special reasons for the War Tax Resistance/Peace Tax Movement to turn to Brussels in 1992.

Brussels houses the headquarters of NATO and is the seat of the European Commission. The Western European Union is to move to Brussels in the near future and the city hopes to become the permanent seat of the European Parliament (which already does a lot of its work in Brussels). In short, it is emerging as the future capital of Europe.

The disappearance of the Warsaw Pact has left NATO as the only major military alliance in Europe. The European Community is the most important economic (and potentially military) power in Europe, with more and more countries seeking to join. So Brussels seems all set to become, in the end, the centre of economic and military power in Europe. The preliminary programme - with visits to NATO headquarters and the European Parliament - will give us ample opportunity to meet these institutions face to face.

But Brussels is not only the future capital of Europe: it is the capital of Belgium. In the Middle Ages it was the capital of the Duchy of Brabant, which extended as far as what is today the south of the Netherlands. Since then, it has always been in Brussels that successive rulers of Belgium resided and based their administration the Dukes of Burgundy (1384 -1506), the Spaniards (1506 - 1713), the Austrians (1713 - 1795), the French (1795 - 1815) and the Dutch (1815 - 1830). It was in Brussels that in 1668 the leaders of the revolt of the Low Countries against the Spanish domination - the counts Egmont and Hoorn - were beheaded. In 1830 it was the uprising in Brussels against the King of the Netherlands that lead to Belgium becoming independent.

In the context of Belgian politics, Brussels has for long been a stumbling block in the relations between the Flemish and the Walloons. By origin it is a Flemish city - the name Brussels comes from ‘broek’/, the Old Dutch word for a marsh - but since the time of the Dukes of Burgundy, the language of the rulers and their court was always French. In the 19th century especially, when French was the official language of the administration, of the legal system, of teaching... the use of the Dutch language declined steeply, so that it is now a predominantly French-speaking enclave in Flanders, where Flemish people are in a minority. The struggle to retain Flemish in Brussels has always been one of the main concerns of the Flemish national movement. In the last 20 years there has undoubtedly been a major improvement in the situation of the Flemish minority in Brussels. Brussels is now officially a bilingual city, where all services operate in both Dutch and French, and the Flemish minority has its own schools, cultural centres and theatres, and hospitals plus several university-level institutions which attract many Flemish people from the rest of the country. Even the Flemish regional government has its seat... in Brussels.

Nevertheless, the protection of the rights of the Flemish minority in Brussels, and of the French-speakers who have gone to live in the Flemish villages around Brussels (and even in some cases form a majority of the population) still remains an almost insoluble problem for Belgian politicians, and has its impact on current political debate.

Another area where Brussels faces a problem typical of Europe today is immigration. The city has a big community of migrants from the Maghreb and southern Europe, and in 1991 there were clashes between young migrants and the police. Poverty and a shortage of housing are other problems that have worsened rapidly in recent years, partly as a result of land speculation sparked off by the prospect of 1993. Racism and exclusion are problems for Brussels as they are for the rest of Europe.