17 december 2007

Belgium's last chapter, to be or not to be ?
(Arnaud Houdmont)

Belgium is left with two choices: bolster the federal government or call it a day. More than half a year without a government and no solution in sight... It was only a matter of time before Belgium would wake up to its own political reality... and it is not a pleasant awakening. For nearly one and a half century Belgium constituted a nation state with a centralised government based in Brussels. It was only in the seventies, under Flemish nationalist pressure, that the country embarked on the slippery slope of de-facto federalism. It is common knowledge that federalism as a result of opposition (rather than consensus) should be approached with extreme caution... but five state reforms later and all caution is out of the window! The last forty years have seen the end of most vital national institutions such as political parties and the national television and radio stations, having all regrouped on linguistic basis. As a result of five successive state reforms aimed at pleasing everyone, the Belgian political scene has become an unintelligible mess for politicians, citizens and visitors alike.

Since 1993 Belgium is officially a federal state, with remnants of a federal government, consisting of three language communities, with roughly six million Dutch speakers in the North of the country and a minority in Brussels, 4 million French speakers in the South and a majority in Brussels, as well as a German-speaking community, which has about 70.000 inhabitants. Each language community has its own parliament and government, responsible for the control of culture, education and some aspects of public healthcare. Besides that, to make matters more complicated, Belgium has three non-congruent (regions and communities overlap but do not coincide) regions with their own competences such as economic development, infrastructure/transport, environment, housing, agriculture, some aspects of employment, energy and water distribution, etc... Belgium would thus have seven governments and parliaments, were it not for the propitious merger of the institutions of the Dutch-speaking community and the Flemish region, leaving it with only six!

With no federal political parties to speak of and the impossibility for the voter to vote for candidates from another linguistic community, political agendas on a federal level are increasingly influenced by regional interests and Flemish nationalism. As if five futile reforms were not enough, the majority of the Flemish electorate and the overwhelming majority of the Flemish mandarins would like to see a sixth one, just for good measure...

As it stands today, coalition negotiations on a federal level have reached an impasse over two issues. On the one hand the Dutch-speaking parties are calling for a new state reform granting even more autonomy and powers to the regions/communities, as well as reducing the economic “solidarity” from Flanders to Wallonia, which the French-speaking community is loath to concede. On the other hand the Flemish are seeking to split the electoral district of Brussels/Halle/Vilvoorde (BHV). Currently people living in Brussels or the surrounding communes (part of Flanders and not of Brussels) can vote for French and Dutch speaking parties alike... since many of those communes have a majority of French-speaking inhabitants. However, in order to protect the “Flemish culture and language “, Flemish parties are asking for the electoral district to be split and allow only Flemish parties to be represented in the communes around Brussels. This is another demand from the Flemish that the French-speaking community is not willing to give in to without something in return. (Such as, for instance, the expansion of Brussels to include some surrounding communes...).

Whereas the constitutional reform and BHV may be the high-profile issues that currently divide the country, they are merely symptoms of a much deeper malaise. Carefully exploited Flemish nationalism as a result of a generalised inferiority complex, in combination with the Flemish economic ascendancy of the last decades, have convinced the Dutch-speaking population that they should protect themselves from francophones and immigrants, whilst safeguarding their “hard-earned” wealth instead of watching it disappear in a big black hole. To be fair, the sheer incompetence of the political elite in Wallonia should carry half of the blame... but one thing is sure, solidarity has left the house!

Today Belgium (barely) stands with its back against the wall and the situation calls for drastic measures. Half-baked solutions will only increase current frustrations, as the country slowly grinds to a halt. The disposition of Belgium is such that it either exists or it doesn’t, and nothing in between. It is often said that in Belgium you can either be a federalist (emphasis on the federal state), a con-federalist (emphasis on the member states) or a separatist... This is simply wrong. It is time to realise that the con-federalist path has taken Belgium’s politicians to the edge of a cliff and can no longer be pursued. The confused politicians and citizens of Belgium now have to choose between grabbing the separatists by the hand, close their eyes and jump; or heed the distant sounds of the moderate federalists that were left behind at the crossroads all those years ago and try to find their way back across treacherous country.

Wallonia and Flanders are like a married couple that is growing apart and sleeping in separate bedrooms, blaming each other for all that went wrong with increasingly bitter resentment. Like in any failing marriage, the parties involved are faced with two choices: rekindle the passion or file for divorce. Saving a marriage is hard work and significant concessions from both parties are called for if a continued Belgian union is to be guaranteed. Such is the reality of marriage. Separation, on the other hand, may appear as the easier solution, but the custody battle over Brussels could turn nasty... or simply impossible to resolve. Such is the reality of divorce.

In reality the two issues at hand, BHV and the constitutional reform, present Belgium with a unique opportunity to resolve their marital issues, once and for all. Any decision taken on these two issues will be indicative of all decisions to come, so rather than attempting yet another useless, aggravating and confusing constitutional reform towards more autonomy for the regions, the current issues could be put to good use and provide the ideal opportunity for moderate federalists to grab the bull by the horns. In any case, considering that all proposals are headed for rejection as long as the con-federalist approach prevails, it is time for the federalists to pick up the torch and tackle them from a different angle.

More recent developments have seen Guy Verhofstadt, the Caretaker Prime Minister (and potentially a “moderate federalist”), put in charge of forming and leading an interim government - by royal request no less - while he paves the way for the formation of a permanent government. In order to do this he needs to find common ground that both French-speaking and Dutch-speaking parties can agree on, to then proceed with the formation of a coalition government; a task that Yves Leterme, victor of the last elections and chief candidate for the post of Prime Minster, failed to bring to a good end after a series of negotiations that dragged on for months. This has now led to latest situation where the Caretaker Prime Minister (a liberal – Open VLD) has asked his rival (a conservative Flemish nationalist - CD&V) to become his Vice Prime Minister in an interim government and resume the talks that would have to lead to a state reform and eventually a legitimate government.

This will not lead to a solution and even if it does, it will be short-lived. Yves Leterme is anything but a “moderate federalist”... He is a fervent “con-federalist”, if there ever was one, and his party has been in bed with the separatist N-VA since before the elections. Whether under supervision of Verhofstadt or not, he will continue to insist on a version of the state reform that will remain inacceptable to the French-speaking community. Verhofstadt realises that the country is in need of a substantial constitutional reform. But rather than following the logic from the past 40 years, heading towards ever more regional autonomy, he should propose a reform that will reinforce the federal government and restore some of the country's fiscal and economic unity. The same thorough constitutional reform could also solve the issue of BHV by allowing all Belgian parties, whatever their origin, to be eligible on electoral lists nation-wide, offering voters the possibility to vote for French- or Dutch speaking parties alike, no matter where they live.

To grant legitimacy to such a constitutional reform, and solve the Belgian question for once and for all, a draft constitution should be put to the people in a referendum. Should the reform be deemed inacceptable by the majority of the Belgians and the draft be rejected by popular vote, it would be a very clear sign on the wall that the political elite could and would not ignore. It would force them to act accordingly and declare the end of Belgium. Should there, however, be wide support for the draft state reform, the federal state of Belgium would emerge victorious, strengthened and invigorated. The current situation in Belgium is unliveable and the current setup unworkable. No amount of constitutional reforms or splitting of electoral districts will change anything about this and it is time that the Belgians (but especially the Flemish) faced the music: to BE or not to BE.


Meer teksten van hem op www.arnaudh.tigblogs.org.
Meer teksten van Vincent De Roeck op www.libertarian.be.


19 Comments:

At 17/12/07 02:49, Anonymous Anoniem said...

I sincerely hope that any solution that re-instates "la Belgique à papa", as apparently put forward in this post, will be met with civil uproar and violence.

I for one will, if this scenario of insanity were to become true, not hesitate to join insurgents in battle against the resurrection of a 19th century monstrosity.

There are worse things than a stuttering economy...

 
At 17/12/07 11:31, Anonymous Anoniem said...

Let's be painfully honest here: a single Federal voting district was proposed in 1979 by Tindemans, and nixed by the Walloon Charles Nothomb.

Just as the unilingual regions were something the Walloons wanted (and got) in... 1932.

 
At 17/12/07 12:51, Blogger Brigant said...

Firstly: Is me or have you forgotten that the constitutional court has deemed the Electoral district of BHV unconstitutional?.Isn't that enough as a motive?

Secondly: I would point out to Verhofstadt's EU-federalist position which could explain his rejuvenant 'belgian federalism', especially direct on economic unity.

Thirdly: If you will put a draft constitution before the people in a referendum, what are you going to do if it has a Belgian majority but no majority among Flemings? Problem is that we have no official system enabling us to identify who is a Fleming and whose not.

 
At 17/12/07 13:46, Anonymous Arnaud Houdmont said...

Interestingly it has been pointed out that there is no official system to positively identify the Flemish from the Walloons, which clearly highlights the fact that, beyond mutually recognised territoriality (obviously Brussels is slightly problematic), the Flemish nation holds very little substance (as is the case with most nations)... In any case, this is not the point, as, indeed, a Belgium-wide referendum would not provide a framework of reference. The only representative answer would come from holding three simultaneous referenda in the three regions: Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia. What I find utterly astonishing is that so-called openminded liberals (or libertarians for that matter!) should want to restrict freedom of choice (the choice, for instance, to set up a party in Zulu and vote for it wherever you may live) in favour of small-minded nationalism.

 
At 17/12/07 14:40, Anonymous Anoniem said...

Nationalism is by definition small-minded if it's not your version...

 
At 17/12/07 15:30, Anonymous Anoniem said...

The requirement that one has to be a resident in order to stand for election is usually not taken as a serious restriction of freedom.

 
At 17/12/07 15:37, Blogger Luc Van Braekel said...

To the most recent anonymous: there is no requirement of residency in a constituency. The only requirement which "limits" francophones in the BHV issue is the fact that one can only be a candidate in one constituency, not in 2 or more.

Hence a candidate in Brussels will not be elegible in HV, once the BHV consituency has been split.

This limitation seems reasonable to me, but the issue is clearly not "residency".

Olivier Mangain will be elegible in Halle-Vilvoorde if he chooses to abandon his candidacy in Brussels.

 
At 17/12/07 17:19, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

@ Arnaud Houdmont


1) Consider the illogic of your opening sentence. What has the substance of the Flemish Nation got to do with the presence or absence of an "official system to identify the Flemish from the Walloons"? Absolutely nothing! How could there be such a system? Are all Belgians not equal before the law under the current Constitution? So, how could a Belgian official 'body' distinguish between Flemish and Walloons? In practice of course, various Belgian official bodies do it all the time, but not legitimately.

2) The simplest and most straightforward way of distinguishing between Flemish and Francophones (not Walloons) is to let them speak. You do not need official bodies for that. Language is the most obvious distinguishing feature. Besides that, of course, there are also manifestly different cultural behavior patterns which reflect themselves in a variety of ways, including political choices.

Since you start from the (rather absurd) proposition that nations "hold very little substance" (the overwhelming majority of people in the world would disagree, certainly the Russians, Chinese, Indians, etc...) you should not be surprised that Belgium "stands with its back against the wall" (which is what prompted you to write this article). Could it then be that Belgium, indeed, holds very little substance?

3) It would be interesting to learn how you distinguish "small-minded nationalism" from any other kind of nationalism? I submit to you that the only legitimate purpose for "nationalism" is to serve the interests of the individuals of a 'nation' (i.e. the political construct with which they could reasonably identify). And, as an "open-minded liberal" (not libertarian), I suggest further that those "interests" of individuals could best be summed up following two criteria: which "nation" is best going to guarantee for Flemish individuals (a) the restauration of genuine freedom of political speech (which has been lost in Belgium over the past few decades), and (b) promote economic (income) growth? Now, which serious and well-informed Flemish person could, following these criteria, choose Belgium over Flanders as his or her 'nation'? Posing the question is answering it, and the choice is not really a 'choice' (at least not for the independent-minded thinkers). On the other hand, for consumers of the parroting Belgian media.......

4) In order for a nation - any nation - to survive over time, there has to be "substance". For that there has to be - at a minimum - some 'pride' in own identity. But, in the end, words are cheap, and substance can only manifest or 'prove' itself by willingness to sacrifice for that identity. Good luck with your (implicit) belief in Belgians' willingness to sacrifice for 'Belgium'.

Shakespeare, who was much smarter than you and me, posed the question of "to be or not to be" in the context of individual survival, not national survival. But, a careful reading of his monumental body-of-work reveals that he too was aware of the importance of political arrangements for individual wellbeing and survival.

 
At 17/12/07 20:56, Blogger Brigant said...

@Arnaud Houdmont:

The basis of a 'liberal' State is the nation, forming the nation-state.

It is not because there is no official system of identification that there is no unofficial system nor that it would be unfeasable to implement such an official system. Subnationality was once an option but was shot down as to far going. You are also forgetting that Belgium consists of 3 communities which come the nearest to the concept of 'nations'. So, a referendum should be made on community-level.

For the rest, I follow Huybrechts's lead.

 
At 17/12/07 23:05, Anonymous Caroline Van Hecke (op Libertarian.be) said...

That Belgium and its ruling elite are losing their control on the public opinion is the biggest victory of liberty since the 1945 liberation of our country from the German invaders. The great gap between Flanders and Wallonia has even stretched out to beauty pageants, as Yahoo News reported today.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20071217/od_afp/belgiumpoliticspeopleoffbeat

The newly elected "Miss Belgium" is a Walloon girl from Czech ancestry. She is not able to speak Dutch, but was nevertheless accepted as a candidate by the (Brussels) organising committee, and was elected miss Belgium thanks to the massive amount of Walloon televoters who adored her laughing at the Flemish majority by not speaking Dutch at all.

 
At 18/12/07 14:41, Anonymous Arnaud Houdmont (op Libertarian.be) said...

Let's sum up what I'm proposing to avoid any further misunderstanding:
- 1 federal voting district
- partially reverse the process of federalisation in favour of efficiency
- a referendum should decide on the above proposals. Should they be rejected by popular vote, the project of Belgium should be abandoned
- the only representative answer would come from holding three simultaneous referenda in the three regions: Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia.

In answer to "a single Federal voting district was proposed in 1979 by Tindemans, and nixed by the Walloon Charles Nothomb": why would the fact that something was rejected once, mean that it has been relegated to history's dustbin forever?

In answer to "Nationalism is by definition small-minded if it's not your version...": nationalism (any kind) is the result of fear, a sheep mentality, deluded pride in a fictitious community and a willingness to exclude the other.

In answer to Marc Huybrechts: how can a nation call itself a nation if it has no characteristics (besides language) to define itself by? Anyhow, you will indeed find very few people who agree that their nation has very little substance, but it remains true that, besides language and a few traditional dances in funny costumes, nations around the world are merely following an elite who's telling them that they form a nation. Thus, Belgium holds as little substance as Flanders does. It's just a less selfish setup and has been around for longer... And how the Flemish have lost their freedom of (political) speech is completely beyond me... Noone is restricting the Flemish from expressing whatever views they would like to express... And finally, I don't believe anyone is willing to sacrifice anything to maintain Belgian unity, but I doubt that many Flemish are willing to give up Brussels in order to gain their independence... It would be stupid of them to do so in any case.

En ten slotte, een antwoord voor Mevrouw van Hecke: als dat arm meisje geen zin heeft om Nederlands te spreken, dan moet die geen Nederlands spreken, net zoals de Vlaamse meisjes van mij geen Frans moeten spreken. In elk geval is het in beide gevallen een gebrek aan verstand... Maar het is dan ook een beauty pageant. Waarom tilt u hier zo zwaar aan? Kan u het niet hebben dat een franstalig meisje soms mooier kan zijn dan een Vlaams meisje, of is het omdat ze Czech is?

 
At 19/12/07 00:24, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

@ Arnaud Houdmont

I will make a distinction between your 'Belgian" proposals, and your broader philosophical opinions.

1) On Belgium we can easily agree that "the current setup is unworkable", and has been so for a long time. Concerning your 4 specific proposals:

-- Constitutional reform that would allow parties to compete with "electoral nation-wide lists" (i.e. 1 federal voting district) could only make (some) sense from a Flemish standpoint if every vote would have equal 'weight'. It would require the abolition of any kind of 'grendelwetten' that currently neuter the Flemish majority. Any special constitutional 'protections' must be for ALL individuals, not for any specific groups (be they religious, linguistic or whatever). In my opinion such a refederalisation would not be in the Flemish interest, given the manifest cultural imperialism that francophones have exhibited in Belgium since its beginning. If one departs from the principle of geographic delineation of linguistic regions, and returns to a common 'marketplace' in which cultures compete (mainly, but not solely, through language), people should realise that the most 'reasonable and pliant' ones will lose, and the most agressive and 'imperialistic' will gain. It simply suffices to observe how the de facto linguistic border has moved over time in the past in Belgium. And it can also be observed that francophones have never 'accepted' the development of linguistically-different enclaves (be it in France, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland), in terms of access to public education in nonfrench education systems or of 'official business' with government in their territories.

-- Reversing the process of federalisation "in favor of efficieny" is a contradiction-in-terms. The limited federalisation in the past was precisely undertaken in part for efficiency reasons. You have the mistaken impression that "fiscal and economic unity" must be restored. That is nonsense. Today monetary policy is governed by the ECB in Frankfurt at the 'European' level. Trade policy is largely governed by the EU, also at a European level. And, in Belgium, both labor market policy and fiscal policy are controlled in Brussels at the federal level, as is social security (even bigger than 'government' in a narrow sense) by the special interests of the trade unions. Concerning fiscal policy, the bulk (90 to 95 %) of all government revenues (whatever level of G) are COLLECTED by the federal government. While there are rules/laws governing distribution of these revenues to the Regions and Communities, where the bulk of government spending (excluding social security) takes place, these laws were intended to promote 'efficieny', at least on the expenditure side of government. Instead of moving spending decisions back to the federal level, what is needed is genuine fiscal devolution, i.e. moving much of revenue (or tax) authority to the Regions in order to promote responsibility in general government. The current 'hybrid' system is a farce, because the different spending- and revenue-decisionmaking is taking place at different levels of government, which promotes irresponsible behavior.

-- I would definitely be in favor of a referendum before constitutional changes are made.

-- How would one judge the 'referendum', if it yields different results in different Regions?

2) Concerning your broader philosophical opinions, I will try to be brief.

You appear to be totally ignorant of the cultural underpinnings of economic wellbeing and political freedom. Except for special (and temporary) cases of special 'free' resources like oil' gas, etc..., and unless one is at a very early (industrialising) 'stage' of economic development (e.g. China), future growth in per capita income will depend essentially on cultural behavior patterns (including the types of political systems and economic institutions that different cultures 'support' or tolerate). So, economic differences in the world between Nigerians, Belgians, Japanese, Algerians etc....have (next to)nothing to do with language differences, but everything to do with different cultural behavior patterns. So, it is nonsensical for you to claim that nations have "little substance".

You also seem to be unaware that we are now benefiting from past cultural achievements, i.e. that it takes time for changes in cultural behavior patterns to reflect themselves in economic results. For example, the much greater welfare dependancy of people in Wallonia on 'government' TODAY is something for which future Belgians (hopefully no longer Flemish people) will have to pay (in terms of RELATIVE lower economic income growth compared with people who do not face such burden), etc...

It is also disconcerting - and undoubtedly reflective of a cultural difference between you and me - that you are not even aware of the gradual loss of freedom of political speech that has been going on in Belgium (and in Western Europe) for some time now. You do not know that there have been 'ordinarily' laws past in recent decades that violate the constitutional provision of freedom of political speech? You are not aware that individuals regularly get persecuted and convicted in Belgium for merely expressing certain opionions (as opposed to actions) and the intimidating effects this has on te rest? You do not care that political parties are selectively being banned in Belgium, Germany, etc...? I guess you reason that as long they do not touch your 'friends' that it would be OK. It is precisely that kind of attitude that should tell independent-thinkers in Flanders that there future political freedom and economic wellbeing can not be assured in the present 'culture' of Brussels/Belgium.

 
At 19/12/07 11:28, Anonymous Arnaud Houdmont (op Libertarian.be) said...

Dear Mr Huybrechts,

Firstly, I appreciate the frank and open discussion we're having, without resorting to pathetic accusations that one so often finds on other websites. Furthermore, you show very thorough knowledge of the issue at hand.

In relation to "Belgium" I will only briefly state that I'm in full agreement with your statement that "The current 'hybrid' system is a farce, because the different spending- and revenue-decisionmaking is taking place at different levels of government, which promotes irresponsible behavior." We differ in our opinion when it comes to the solution. In my modest opinion, we either abandon Belgium alltogether or we largely "restore" Belgium, anything in between merely serves to further feed a hybrid monster.

This said, your analysis of my "broader philosophical opinions" is entirely mistaken. Let me first state that, despite my French-sounding name, I was born and raised in Antwerp by a Flemish father and a half-Flemish mother... I'm not sure as to whom you believe "my friends" to be, but I can assure you that, having travelled extensively, they represent "cultures" from around the world, with fairly few Belgians( Walloon or Flemish) amongst them.

To sum up my views on "culture" and hopefully discard any "cultural difference between you and me" as insignificant, it suffices to say that the less educated a population, the more it is seen clinging to either religious or cultural artefacts served to them by those in power. This may at times serve a useful purpose, but most of the time creates barriers to development. Similarly the cultural differences that you observe within developed and educated societies, are merely a consequence of fabricated delusions promoted by an elite and an obedient media (such as conservative fearmongering in the US or the inexplicable urge that Walloons have to vote for the PS).
As for free speech and political expression, you have also judged me wrong (or perhaps I expressed myself badly): I believe everyone should have the right to express their views, as revolting as they may seem to me. I agree that this is not sufficiently the case in Belgium, but to claim that the Flemish are the sole victims of this reality, is absurd... This brings me back to culture and language. Whereas I fully agree with the fact that cultures and languages compete (and that it should be that way), I disagree with your statement that the compliant ones will loose out and the imperial ones will carry the day. It is, rather, the useful ones that will win, following some sort of linguistic natural selection. Any state protectionism or cultural subsidies will interfere with this process and merely serves to artificially keep a less viable language/culture alive. Whereas francophone "imperialism" may have dominated the Belgian scene during the first half of the 20th century, it is the Flemish that are now guilty of throwing money at the promotion and the artificial survival and spreading of the Flemish "culture"...

 
At 19/12/07 13:45, Blogger Brigant said...

Restructuring the Belgian State onto a Federal level contradicts the entire long term evolution that has been going on and it contradicts the current long term wave.

If you want to have a liberal democracy you need to have a nationstate. Belgium is not a nationstate but a zombiestate. A federal electoral district contradicts the current evolution of the Belgian state and would contradict the reality of the Belgian non-nationstate. If you want to go anywhere near a 'Belgian' federal district you will need to organise electoral disctricts onto the community level and it would be best to introduce subnationality for electoral discrimination purposes. That way a Walloon living in Ostend but still a Francophone can only vote for representatives on the French community list. Thus enabling vote transfer and bringing us a step closer to a multinationstate construct or pushing the zombiestate further onto the brink of collapse (and the creation of a fullfledged Flemish nationstate).

It seems to me that you continue to deny the existance of 3 official communities in Belgium, thus there is no Belgian culture or nation.
There is a Flemish culture which has more ties with the Dutch than with the Waloons (doesn't mean there are no ties), whilst the 'Walloon' culture is clinging on more towards the French culture (hence French community) but projecting itself as 'Belgian'. The German community is a big mystery but they're trying to break loose from the Walloon region as well.

Suffering from Post-Modernist Liberalism?

 
At 19/12/07 18:57, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

Dear Mr Houmont,

I, too, appreciate "the frank discussion we are having".

1) I am glad we agree that the current hybrid system is not working. But, you do not seem to realise that the preceding centralised system was not working either. So, we disagree on were to go next. You want to go back to the previous unworkable system, of unhappy marriage partners forced to live in the straightjacket of an unhappy marriage. By contrast, I want genuine fiscal devolution, i.e. self-determination for both Communities, which is another way of saying that I want to 'responsabiliser' both Communities. The reason I want this for the Flemish people is purely practical, and not based on any romantic or folkloristic notions. It follows my belief (based on numerous empirical observations) that a self-governing Flanders is more likely to lead to genuine 'democracy' and to ensure more economic (income) growth for its people in the future. This is a big subject......

2) I do not think that my take on your broader philosophical opinions was "mistaken". On the contrary, you continue to confirm them. And, the matter of your interesting Antwerp-background and extensive travel, has absoutely nothing to do with whether my view on this is correct or not.

3) Whatever you may think about the sources of major differences in cultural behavior patterns, they are very real, and they have major consequences for the long term welfare of individuals (both in an economic and political/cultural sense). And, while I would be interested in delving further into your views on different perceptions about the role of "power" in different societies, I suspect that our 'big picture' interpretation is very different, in part because of your tendency to downplay the importance of 'culture' in human wellbeing. I certainly do not agree with your charge of "conservative fearmongering in the US". If anything, the American media generally is perhaps the most virulent enemy of such fearmongering (too the extent that its existence could be truthfully recognised, instead of just parroted as you seem to be doing). I also do not think that the urge for Walloons to vote for the PS is "inexplicable". Far from it!

4) Did I claim that the Flemish are "the sole victims" of the reality of violation of political free speech rights? I do not think so! On the contrary, I did clearly frame the issue in a broader West-European context ("...Belgium, Germany, etc...").

5) I also think that, in the context of inter-cultural competition, your view that "the useful ones" will win, is exceedingly naive (because contrary to numerous empirical observations). For example, in my youth (long ago), Lebanon was a relatively 'advanced' and tolerant place in the Middle East. Today, its maronite and other 'christian' minorities are dwindling rapidly, and I do not expect democracy to survive there at all. Neither do I think that it will in Western Europe either (but that is somewhat further away). Moreover, I suspect that you have a rather utilitarian and perhaps short-sighted interpretation of the term "useful".

6) Finally, your last sentence tells me that we mean very different things by the term "culture". I am talking about behavior patterns (i.e. work effort, savings propensity, perceptions of fairness in politics and economics, etc..). I am certainly not talking about trivia like "throwing money at artificial survival of Flemish culture". "Throwing money" is more typical for statists and naive-lefties, not for pragmatic workers like the Flemish, who have Europe's highest labor productivity but certainly not its highest per capita income. That difference between labor productivity and income is precisely why your suggestion of 'refederalising' does not make any sense. But, in my view, the main reason why Flemish self-determination is of the utmost importance, is that it will improve the chances of the maintenance of genuine democracy for Flemish individuals. Belgian 'snelbelgwetten' and other Brussel-induced nonsense are the surest way to undermine that.

 
At 21/12/07 13:15, Anonymous Arnaud Houdmont said...

Dear Mr Huybrechts,
1. What I do realise is that introducing further "federalising" reforms will not work either. As you have correctly noticed my clear preference goes out to re-instating a federal voting district. But what you fail to address, is the proposal I suggest should my first choice be rejected by popular referendum. That is, the end of Belgium. Rather than perpetuating an unworkable system with six unaccountable governments, overlapping competencies and kindergarten politics, Belgium should then decide to split, obviously granting self-determination rights to 4 separate entities: Wallonia, Flanders, Brussels and our German-speaking friends. In any case, either decision (safe further federalisation) will result in increased democracy (as for wealth for Flanders... I would hold my horses if I were you).
2. My Antwerp background and international upbringing merely served to indicate the fact that you do not know "my friends" as you suggested in a previous comment.
3. I'm happy to oblige your wish to further discuss power relations within the realm of culture. Culture, whereas “real” to the extent that the Germans are perceived to be organised and punctual and Italians more laid-back and outgoing, is an ever-evolving process of self-identification within a given place and timeframe. This process is necessarily responsive to external influences and therefore vulnerable to exploitation by self-serving elite. Be it religious or nationalist in nature, focussing on the differences between individuals (rather than similarities) and labelling them as part of a group, halts the process of assimilation and evolution (at times, so much so that certain "groups" can no longer evolve within the context of a globalising world, for instance Radical Islam). Cultural behaviour is only as useful as its ability to adapt... Protecting (by subsidies or otherwise) a culture is ludicrous and will eventually cause a culture to stagnate.
We very clearly disagree with the status of "fear mongering" in the US. A country based on what is the best document ever written (the US Constitution) has managed to frighten its population into accepting fundamental restrictions to their civil liberties. Whereas 10 years ago the US led the world by example, through the virtue of its soft power, it has since turned its back to the principles that made it a great country. This situation came about when ordinary Americans started to believe that every Muslim had a Jihad going against them... the “War on Terror” was their answer.
4. That’s settled then.
5. As I expounded above, I believe all cultural elements (if not subsidised or actively promoted through use of violence or oppression) have a limited lifespan directly proportionate to their usefulness. Likewise languages can be seen as self-sustaining entities that have a natural life span, depending on their usefulness, sustainability/progression and adoption rate (popularity). In this situation a language will be passed onto the next generations and maintained as long as it is seen to be a vital element of societal life. Many elements would affect the viability of a language, such as economic ascendance of the linguistic group concerned, geographical spread, the existence of deeply-rooted cultural artefacts related to the language and the regional/global standing of the nation/population at hand. The idea of allowing natural selection to decide on the fate of languages has the advantage that those languages that have lost their purpose, will be replaced by languages that are used more widely and are at the source of the global economy and universal culture. The downside of this approach is that some languages will merely remain as linguistic relics when they have stopped serving a particular society’s needs.
6. I fail to see how “snelbelgwetten” would hamper Flemish democracy... except if your reasoning has it that the democratic opinion of a Flemish person of Moroccan origin is of less value...

 
At 22/12/07 00:13, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

Dear Mr Houdmont,

1) We agree on ending "the unworkable sytem of 6 unaccountable governments". I thought there are 9 such 'governments' in Belgium (That is what I was told at the National Bank of Belgium, quite a while ago). But, I guess that is a judicial technicality.

We disagree on where to go from here. I want to go forward (and I have explained my main reasons), but you want to go backward. I do not think that going backward is going to bring more democratisation and wealth creation for Flemish people. On the contrary, it will do the opposite. But, let's face it, we are not going to settle this, because we have very different underlying views about both (a)democracy and (b) the sources of economic growth and wealth creation.

2) Of course I cannot know your "friends", since I do not know you. There is a misunderstanding here. What I meant was that you seemed unconcerned about the violation in Belgium (and some other West European countries) of free-speech rights of people you dislike. That is very short-sighted (and too 'utilitarian' for your own good). That is how democracy was lost before in Europe. If you tolerate it in the case of people you dislike, one day they will surely come after you. Either, all have freedom of political speech, or no one REALLY has it. It is as simple as that. The essence of the 'democratic' Constitution gets respected and upheld, or it does not. In the latter case, you are in limbo.

3-A) We certainly agree that cultures must evolve and adapt over time. That is precisely why freedom of political speech is of the utmost importance. The current violations in Europe in that respect are precisely designed to prevent adaptation. Their intention is to preserve the dogmas of the ruling cultural (naive-left) orthodoxy.

I have absolutely no interest in labeling any individual as part of any group, and I am totally in favor of "assimilation" of immigrants. I think that you are again exceedingly naive when you think that "radical islam" is "evolving in a globalising world". It is just the opposite. Certainly in Europe, radical islam has already succeeded to a large extent in putting islam itself beyond public criticism. The same intimidation that rules in 'Arabia' is already beginning to show up (to a lesser extent) in Eurabia. The important question is will people like you be able to discern this in time? I doubt it, given the current state of the education system and the media establishment.

3-B) Concerning the US, you simple parrot what the naive-left establishment tells you through its media and the education system. It is simply factually incorrect to say that there are now "fundamental restrictions on..civil liberties" of US CITIZENS. In fact, even after the various revisions of the Patriot Act, any serious constitutional jurist could tell you that civil liberties remain more restrictive in major European countries (like France, Germany, and even the UK). But do not expect the naive-left media to tell you that.

You are also very mistaken that the US "led the world" in the past through its "soft power". It was not soft power that kept Stalin's armies out of Western Europe after ww2 (and that made Franco-German 'reconciliation even possible), that stopped the genocides in the balkans 10 years ago, that stopped China from implementing its threat to Taiwan when Clinton moved 2 aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Straights in response to detected Chinese 'moves' on its coast, etc....I could give you a long list of examples that suggest that you live in a fantasy world as far as the reality of geopolitics is concerned. And, surely, that applies with regard to the medium-term future as well. But, you are simply reflecting a certain kop-in-de-grond attitude that is now characteristic of Belgian culture with regard to the realities of the world. It is certainly a figment of your imagination (but planted by some else) that "ordinary Americans believe that every Muslim has a Jihad against them". You obviously do not read the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, etc...nor do you watch the major American TV networks. They certainly paint a very different picture. How could people, who are constantly being told by much of their media that there is no such thing as a jihad, believe such a thing?. The reality is, of course, that Islam is on a Jihad against the West, but it is going to take a bit longer before you will be 'allowed' to recognise that by your cultural environment. I have no doubt that you will eventually, but probably not in time.

4) ...

5) I have tried to explain before that the issue is not language, but culture. And by "culture' I mean values and corresponding or resulting behavior patterns. You think of culture in a very different and superficial way.

6) The reason why you fail to see how "snelbelgwetten" could hamper Flemish democracy, is because you do not understand the importance of "culture" (as I have just defined it) for the maintenance of democracy. But, I certainly do NOT think that the opinion of a "Flemish person of Moroccan origin" would A PRIORI be of any less value than the opinions of anyone else. Certainly not if we are talking about an individual and genuine (culturally) "Flemish" person whose parents came perhaps from Morocco a couple of generations ago. The quality of opinions does not depend on "origins" of people. At the same time, I must say, if you think that real Moroccans typically were to have "democratic opinions", how come there is no recognisable "democracy" in Morocco? You forget that this subject came up in the context of "snelbelgwetten". Remember cultures change over time, and 'snelbelgwetten' tend to lead to speed that up. The question is "in what direction" of change?

I recognise that our 'big picture' interpretation of the world is very different. But, I trust that, given time, you will be able to adjust your 'big picture' significantly, under the force of the coming (rather shocking) events. Call it "fearmongering", if you will; I call it making judgements based on factual empirical observations (around the world) without being intimidated by one's own cultural environment.

 
At 22/12/07 15:42, Anonymous Arnaud Houdmont (op Libertarian.be) said...

Dear Mr Huybrechts,

Right, we should probably agree to disagree in order to avoid repeating ourselves ad nauseam.

For the record, I would like to point out 2 of your misinterpretations of my writing:
- I tolerate all opinions (as clearly stated in a previous entry of mine) and will defend everybody's right to complete freedom of expression. As revolting as some opinions may be, it's everybody's inalienable right to express their views!
- My proposition in my previous entry was exactly the opposite of what you seem to have understood: Radical Islam is unable to adapt to a globalising world and has shown to be, in every aspect, a stagnant "cultural" phenomenon incapable of assimilation.
- FYI, I have a subscription to the Economist, read the Newsweek regularly and visit multiple websites in order to inform myself across a broad spectrum of media. Should you wish to read about fearmongering in the US, you can simply pick up last week's Newsweek (Predictions for 2008) and read Fareed Zakaria's "The Fearful Superpower".

I have thoroughly enjoyed our exchange of opinions on both the "Belgian" situation and the broader realm of culture.

I hope we will be able to engage in discussion again sometime in the future.

Regards and best wishes for 2008,
Arnaud

 
At 22/12/07 20:02, Anonymous Marc Huybrechts said...

Dear Mr Houdmont,

1) I believe you when you say that "you tolerate all opinons". However, I think that many of the Belgian parliamentarians (who actually violate freedom of political speech with some of their misguided 'ordinary laws') will say the same, but behave differently. My main point is that it is not enough to say that one "tolerates". Because Belgians today also "tolerate" that their political class (and the judiciary as well) plainly violate the existing Belgian Constitution. Words are not enough, people have to act and do their civic duty, including holding their politicians accountable. In order to be able to maintain democracy in the long term, there can be nothing more important than ensuring the maintenance of freedom of political speech. Our discussion about changing the constitution (i.e. going forward or backward in terms of regional autonomy) is truly 'peanuts' compared with that.

2) We agree that radical islam is incapable of adapting to modernity. We disagree about the rest of the world. Specifically, you do not recognise that some European countries in particular have already adjusted BACKWARDS in terms of adjusting their own culture, by partially accomodating radical islam. This has of course always happened, to some extent, in the muslim world and in some other countries as well.

3) I am glad you read The Economist, It is still a quality magazine, though not as good as, say, 20 years ago. Such is my opinion. But, you are wasting your time with Newsweek. It has become as unbalanced and naive-left as could be imagined. Not hard-left, mind you. Quite a number of its major contributors are truly ideological nutcases.

4) I have a better opinion of Fareed Zakaria, although I realise that he bears a major responsibility for Newsweek 'degeneration' in recent years. His book on illiberal democracy was certainly much better than the one on the fearful superpower. He is very smart and very smooth, and also a muslim (born in India). Being a muslim is not a 'crime', but it does matter for his 'big picture' interpretation and underlying values. You should also realise that he is 'running' (quietly) for becoming Hillary Clinton's Secretary of State. But, I suspect that he will only get into a senior State Department position under Richard Holbrook. Keep all that in mind when you read that superficial rag called 'Newsweek'.

Likewise, my best wishes for 2008. Marc

 

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