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Regionalization and Economic Crisis in Belgium: The Variable Origins of Centrifugal and Centripetal Forces*

  • Maureen Covell (a1)


This article examines the impact of economic crisis on the process of regionalization in Belgium and the influence of both on the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces in the Belgian political system. It argues that the usual approach to this suject, which identifies centripetal forces with the national government and centrifugal forces with regional governments, misses the possibility that important proponents of further fragmentation may be located at the national level. The economic crisis of the early 1980s did lead to an increase in centrifugal pressures in the system but not to an increase in the power of the new regional executives. Rather, it led to a major rearrangement of the economic policy-making process at the national level.

Cet article examine l'impact de la crise économique sur le processus de régionalisation en Belgique, ainsi que l'influence des deux événements sur l'équilibre des forces centrifuges et des forces centripètes dans le système politique belge. La façon habituelle de trailer ce sujet, qui identifie les forces centripètes avec le gouvernement national et les forces centrifuges avec les gouvernements régionaux, néglige la possibilité de trouver d'importants forces centrifuges au niveau national. La crise économique du début des années 80 a bien contribuè à une augmentation des forces centrifuges dans le système belge, mais cette augmentation n'a pas abouti à une augmentation des pouvoirs des nouveaux exécutifs régionaux. Les rapports et la localisation des forces ont plutôt amené à un réaménagement du processus de formation de politique économique au niveau national.



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1 See Stevenson, Garth, Unfulfilled Union: Canadian Federalism and National Unity (Toronto: Gage, 1982), chap. 3.

2 See Black, Edwin R., Divided Loyalties: Canadian Concepts of Federalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975), 4147

3 Thomas O. Hueglin, “Trends of Federalist Accommodation in Canada and West Germany. ” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Guelph, 1984, 21.

4 Some theories, notably the “consociational democracy” school, argue that attempts by central governments to impose excessive co-ordination in fragmented societies may have unintended centrifugal consequences. See Lijphart, Arend, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1977), 24

5 For arguments that votes for "nationalist" parties can have several interpretations, see Covell, Maureen, “Ethnic Conflict and Elite Bargaining: The Case of Belgium,” West European Politics 4 (1981), 197218Mair, PeterMcAllister, lan, “A Territorial versus a Class Appeal? The Labour Parties of the British Isles' Periphery,” European Journal of Political Research 10 (1982). 1734 The regionalization of party vote in Canada also supports the argument.

6 For studies of early regionalization in Belgium, see Martin O. Heisler, “Institutionalizing Social Cleavages in a Cooptive Polity: The Growing Importance of the Output Side in Belgium, “ in Heisler, Martin O. (ed.), Politics in Europe: Structures and Processes in Some Post-Industrial Democracies ((New York): David McKay, 1974); and Aristide Zolberg, “Splitting the Difference: Federalization without Federalism in Belgium,” in Esman, Milton J. (ed.), Ethnic Conflict in the Western World ((Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).

7 Collard, R. and Joiret, Y., La régionalisation: contrainles el opportunités pour la Wallonie (Brussels: Institut Emile Vandervelde, 1980)68. See also. Quévit, MichelLes causes du declin Wallon (Brussels: Éditions vie ouvrière 1978) for a general analysis of the Walloon economy.

8 Collard and Joiret, La régionalisation, 74.

9 In “The Social Bases of Flemish Nationalism,” Hoeven, P. J. Augustus Ter stresses the degree to which this nationalism is “rational and instrumental,” oriented to improving the status and prosperity of nationalists (International Journal of the Sociology of Language 15 [1978], 22ff.) The Flemish movements were not only concerned with cultural questions, but devoted much of their efforts to the improvement of the Flemish economy and the construction of Flemish capital holdings. See Molitor, Michel, “La face cachee des problemes institutionels beiges: leurs racines economiques, ” La Revue Noiivelle 9 (1979), 149–62.

10 Bol, Jean-Marie Van, Politique économique et ponvoir régional (Louvain: Ciaco, 1982), 23.

11 Francis Delpérée, “Préface,” in Bol, Jean-Marie Van, Politique économique, 1.

12 The constitutional amendments and laws of 1980 created two sets of autonomous institutions: three regions to handle economic matters, and two “communities” to handle cultural matters such as education and “personalizable” matters such as health care and social assistance. Since regional institutions for Brussels have not yet been established, this article will concentrate on the Flemish and Walloon regions. The Flemish have merged their regional and community institutions, but the francophones have kept separate executives for the French community and the Walloon region.

13 The Flemish executive also gets the allocation for the Flemish community. Or a total of 5.3 per cent of the national budget.

14 In the summer of 1985 the Walloon region did impose a levy on sales of water. Since Wallonia is a major supplier of water to Flanders, the incidence of this tax would fall largely on that region.

15 The communities have been more successful in federalizing their associated interest groups, in part because they were given more complete powers in many subject areas and in part because the organizations involved are more dependent on community subsidies. For example, only the richest sports associations were able to resist being split into Flemish and francophone associations and, more important, the Catholic network of social associations has split. Unions and employers' associations have more incentive to remain united and better resources for doing so.

16 See “L'Europe s'inquiète,” Vers I'Avenir, July 24, 1981.

17 One of the goals of the government was the reduction of purchasing power by 2 per cent a year from 1982 to 1986. Various specific measures included increasing social security contributions and decreasing benefits, and cutting the link between salaries and the price index. The government enacted many of these measures under a regime of special powers.

18 See Centre de Recherche et d'Information Socio-Politiques (CRISP), Dossier Pour Wallonie 2000 (Brussels: CRISP, 1981).

19 See, for example, Quévit, Michel, “Economic Competition, Regional Development, and Power in Belgium,” in Kuklinski, Antoni (ed.), Polarized Development and Regional Policies (New York: Mouton, 1981), 357–77; and Michel Molitor, “La face cachée des problèmes institutionnels belges.”

20 See, for example, “Ambitieuse Vlaamse visie op. verniewd industrieel beleid,” Het Belang van Limburg, May 3,1984, which discusses the Flemish executive's report on its “Third Industrial Revolution for Flanders” policies.

21 Interview, Le Soir, January 25, 1985. Dehousse goes on to declare that “If left economic policy means massive nationalizations, as in France, then I don't want a left economic policy for Wallonia. Public initiative should concentrate on energy and credit policy.”

22 The Flemish executive has not always adhered strictly to its model of economic policy. For example, it has supported aid to the Limburg coal mines, hardly an industry of the Third Industrial Revolution. See “Kolenindustrie en partijpolitiek,” Het Volk, June 9, 1984. The tendency of regional economic policies to resemble each other has also been noted in Canada. See, for example, Elkins, David J. and Simeon, Richard, Small Worlds: Provinces and Parties in Canadian Political Life (Toronto: Methuen, 1980), 282.

23 “Apothecaries' accounts” is the Belgian term for the minute calculations of regional advantage and disadvantage that francophones and Flemish make in evaluating government policy.

24 The Cockerill firm was one of the first industrial establishments in Belgium, and its fate had symbolic as well as economic importance.

25 The exact amount the rescue would cost was difficult to specify, since it would depend, among other things, on how rapidly the rescue took place. Estimates ranged from II billion francs (about 280 million Canadian dollars) to 27 billion (about 675 million) depending on how various components were calculated, and who was doing the counting.

26 This agreement also follows the usual Belgian pattern for settling disputes among nonlinguistic as well as linguistic groups: “le réglement de ces conflits se fait par voie de ‘pactes’... et au prix de lourdes ponctions dans le budget de l'État” (Claeys, Paul H. and Loeb-Mayer, Nicole, “Le para-fédéralisme belge: une tentative de. conciliation par la cloisonnement,” International Political Science Review 5 [1984], 474).

27 See the various accounts in La Lettre de Belgique, November 29, 1985. and December 13, 1985.

* This article is based on research conducted in Belgium during 1983, and supported by a Leave Fellowship and Research Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I would like to thank the Belgian Consulate in Vancouver for making Lettre de Belgique available to me during the last two years. The article was originally presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Montreal, 1985; the comments of the discussants and other members of the panel suggested some useful revisions, as did the anonymous readers of this Journal.

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Regionalization and Economic Crisis in Belgium: The Variable Origins of Centrifugal and Centripetal Forces*

  • Maureen Covell (a1)


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