What do we celebrate in Belgium, and why?

QUENTIN GENARD

Logo-federation-wallonie-bruxellesOn September 27th, (a part of) Belgium will celebrate! Many cultural events (theatre, sports, concerts…) will be organised throughout Brussels and Wallonia for Belgian residents who will enjoy them because of bank holiday. This time, the King will not be the centre of attention, but the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. Since 1993 indeed, Belgium is officially a federation but the so-called linguistic communities were created well before: the French Community (former name of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation) is indeed celebrated since its foundation in 1981. Celebration days, as everything else related to politics in Belgium are not neutral: they encompass a specific story that tells long about the spirit that describes Belgian politics. This short article intends to present some of today’s strong tendencies.

As stated in the previous article, Belgium national day takes place on July 21st, date of oath of the first King of the Belgian. This year, the date was special as the new King was enthroned. The other important date is November 15th, King’s day. It is also a Bank holiday for federal public services, but not for the sub-federal ones. Interestingly, this is also the date chosen by the German-speaking community to celebrate its existence. Unless exceptional events, such as this year’s King’s oath, these days are relatively low in political significance.

Wappers_-_Episodes_from_September_Days_1830_on_the_Place_de_l’Hôtel_de_Ville_in_Brussels

On the other hand, the Celebration days of sub-national level of government are more relevant because they are often the opportunity to strengthen the position vis-à-vis the other major community living in Belgium. The dates are also chosen on purpose. If the date of the German-speaking community sends a message of unity, the ones chosen by the Flemish and the Walloon Regions send a different message. In 1830, Belgians were fighting for their independence against the Dutch army presence in Brussels. The legend tells us that the Revolution started on September 23rd, after a representation of the opera La muette de Portici at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. This opera is renowned for celebrating nationalism and this was the opportunity for the bourgeois attending the representation to fly down in Brussels’ streets and to begin a fight with the Dutch soldiers present in the Capital at that moment. It remains highly symbolic for the Belgian political life. This movement grew and culminated, on September 27th, with the expulsion of Dutch troops out of Brussels.

This date was chosen by the French Community as a date to remember. On the other hand, the Flemish Community also chose a highly symbolic date. Every July 11th, the Flemish Community is celebrating. In July 1302, Flemish troops won against French armies. The French King, jealous of the success in trade of cities like Brugge, wanted to take over the region and send a representative. The latter was assassinated. The King, in turn, decided to fight against the disrespectful Flemish and sent a part of his army. The soldiers were rapidly overwhelmed by Flemish citizens. This is often considered as the starting point of the nationalist feeling of the Flemish movement.

Why is it politically symbolic? The Flemish, and the Walloon movements, i.e. movement that claims the existence of a specific identity linked with the language, makes often reference to these events in a romantic way, to exalt nationalistic feelings. However, at the very beginning it was unsure whether the existence of such a nationalism could exists by itself or should it be linked with the nationality of the empire above and below Belgium: France and The Netherlands. This is highly visible in the name chosen in 1981: the French Community (instead of the French-speaking), the Dutch Community and… the German-speaking Community!

As mentioned above, these celebrations are politically symbolic as the discourses pronounced on these days are listened with a very careful attention. The last ones, the Flemish Celebration, was the opportunity for the Minister-President to call for a better representation of his Community at the European level (currently, when a Council of Ministers is convoked on a matter that belongs to the Communities, it is one of the two main Communities that represents Belgium and expresses one single voice: every point is negotiated beforehand intra Belgium and if no agreement can be reached, Belgium abstains). No doubt that new claim will be formulated on September 27th.

In addition to these communities Days, you also have the opportunity to attend Region’s Days (Brussels and Wallonia). It is another particularity of Belgium. Formally, Communities, a unit based upon a common language, and Regions, based upon a defined territory, compose Belgium. It means that you can face one territory where two Communities apply: the Walloon region encompasses a part of the French Community and the German Community.

Things become tricky if you consider practical details. In Brussels, who belongs to which community? The Communities are competent regarding institutions. We should therefore look at the language used at a travel agency for example. What if they operate in both languages? It is a case of “biculturalism”, and the federal authority is now competent. Talking about bi-, do you know who is supposed to be “linguistic a-sexual”? The Prime Minister! 7 members coming from the Flemish Community, 7 from the French Community and the Prime Minister who is assumed to be neutral compose the Federal Government.

The point of this article was to show how logical the Belgian political system is. If you take as starting point that the entire system is built upon sub-national institutions, the system represents a certain degree of coherence. Two main problems can be identified in the Belgian political system and that explains many of its tensions. The first comes from the fact that the political system is constantly moving: the Federal government just finished the negotiations regarding the institutional reform and the new transfers of competences agreed in 2011 that the NV-A, the Flemish independent party famous for its political provocations but very popular, is already mentioning that a new reform will be necessary after the Federal elections of May 2014. The second problem comes form the quasi absence of a Belgian political sphere. The Flemish politicians (the example is taken as they have more claims than the others parts) have to gather the voices from the Flemish population. The political campaign is not taking place in the other linguistic regions of the country. This is what explains the difficulty to set up a government. Imagine 20 people elected with a specific program, with no counterpart during the political campaign, coming to the negotiation table without any informal link with to other negotiators? There is no common ground on the federal level therefore it makes the negotiations for a government so hard.


Quentin Genard – Belgian, former student of the College of Europe (Department of European Political and Administrative studies) and the University of Liège (Master in European policies), mainly interested in the political life of its own country, the European Union and the trade in strategic items.


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6 Responses to What do we celebrate in Belgium, and why?

  1. Anita Sęk says:

    It is interesting that only the public sector employees celebrate (= have day off), but not all the others ((private, NGO, academia, EU…). Ah these Belgians. Greetings from the office 🙂

  2. Quentin Genard says:

    I am working for both publics services and think tank. The public services are enjoying the bank holiday BUT I have to be in the think tank because, even if their DNA is 100% francophone, „they don’t have to money to lose one day as bank holiday”. I ❤ Belgium.

  3. I wonder how is this ‚linguistic a-sexuality’ of the Prime Minister in reality? What is the experience of the past 10-20 years? Which linguistic group is he in fact representing?

    • Quentin Genard says:

      Actually, all Prime Ministers are Flemish since WW2 except two, including the current one. The PM is „picked” by the King as, the King asking the most legitimate person in the country (considering demographic weight, a Flemish) to begin consultations on a governmental program right after the election. This person usually becomes PM. He is reputed to be „a-sexual” as it is written in the Constitution that the Council of Ministers is composed on a parity (FR/NL) basis. If you have to designate the primus inter pares, you give an advantage to one community, which is an unfair solution. The solution chosen was neutrality. It is also important as he is chairing conciliation committees where Walloons and Flemish meet to discuss common matter.
      But this is also sometimes ridiculous: newspapers are talking for some weeks about a “scandal”: PM went to China and signed a contract for Pandas to come to Belgium (true). The question is: in which Zoo? There is one big in Flanders, and the other one in Wallonia. As he advertised for Wallonia, the one that has, according to him, the most chance to get them, Flemish are arguing that it is not fair… As I stated in the article: everything is conceived on the notion of linguistic parity in Belgian institutions (nominations of directors, diplomats, etc.)

  4. Quentin Genard says:

    Some views from last night’s party in Brussels: http://www.rtbf.be/video/detail_fete-de-la-communaute-francaise?id=1856870

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