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Belgium's devolution conundrum

29 September 08 15:32 GMT

By Henri Astier
BBC News website

Belgium has a multi-layered federal system that makes British-style devolution look simple.

Working out who is responsible for what can be a challenge for foreigners - and probably many Belgians as well.

Until the 1960s, the country had a single government for the whole country.

But over the past four decades, a series of constitutional reforms have devolved ever more powers to various bits of the country.

The successive changes arose from horse-trading between Belgium's Dutch-speakers, who represent 60% of the population, and French-speakers - hence the rather messy nature of the result.

"It is very complicated, but that's the way institutions have evolved," says Olivier Chastel, the deputy foreign minister, adding that the single model was "clearly no longer suitable to a majority in the country".

Belgium's unique devolution reforms split the country three ways - twice.

In the 1970s, "communities" were set up on the basis of language and culture. They represent the Dutch-speakers, French-speakers, and the small German-speaking population.

Each community looks after education, culture, and sports.

Then, in the late 1970s and 1980s, three geographical regions were created: Flanders to the north, Wallonia to the south, and the capital, Brussels.

These regions have wide powers over economic policy, transport, energy, housing, and the environment.

Regions and communities do not overlap. Belgium's 70,000 German-speakers form a community but do not have their own region - their territory in the east lies within Wallonia.

Brussels is a region but its residents belong to the community of their native language.

To sum up, Belgium and its constituent parts have six governments, each with its own parliament and cabinet ministers:

Too many cooks?

In another unique feature of Belgian federalism, all the governments are formally on the same level.

The federal government cannot trump communities on educational matters, just as regions do not have a say on defence policy.

However, a number of responsibilities are shared. Both the federal government and the regions, for instance, have ministers for transport, energy and the environment.

"It raises a number of concerns regarding overlapping competence," says Mr Chastel. "Sometimes you have to bring together four, five or six ministers to address a problem."

Mr Chastel argues that the system is manageable despite its unwieldy nature. But many commentators are not so sure.

Take trade promotion - which has been devolved to the regions, although the foreign ministry still has a trade division in charge of selling the Belgium brand as a whole.

This means, for instance, that in China, economic missions from both Flanders and Wallonia are based in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong - in addition to the embassy's trade representative.

A total of nine Belgian officials are touting various bits of a country the size of a medium Chinese city.

"The Chinese just don't get it," says Gie Goris, editor of Mo, a Dutch-language magazine on globalisation.

"Half-way reforms have created a labyrinth of responsibilities that impedes good government," he adds.

And - perhaps inevitably - political stalemate feeds recriminations between Belgium's communities.

A few months ago, the federal environmental agency blocked a plan by scientists in Ghent to plant genetically-modified trees.

"The move was denounced by some local politicians as a francophone plot to stifle Flemish innovation," says David Heller, an activist for Friends of the Earth based in Ghent.

Joyless divisions

Belgian-style devolution may be complex and divisive, but the country could in future get more, not less.

Many in wealthy Flanders feel they are paying too much in social transfers to the poorer south.

Prime Minister Yves Leterme was elected in June 2007 after promising his Flemish constituents more control over welfare policy.

Walloons are fiercely resisting this - and under Belgium's system of proportional representation, Mr Leterme needs them to keep his coalition together.

Torn between Flemish nationalists demanding more devolution and southerners resisting it, the prime minister has opted for fudge, agreeing to more talks between the communities.

The issue will not be resolved until next year at the earliest - by which time Belgium will have been without an effective central government for two years.

Can the country survive such protracted stalemate?

Luc Van der Kelen, an influential commentator from Het Laatste Nieuws, Belgium's biggest selling newspaper, points out that Belgium has been there before.

All the constitutional reforms of the past 40 years have been preceded by recriminations and paralysis.

The country is still there, he says, and it more or less works: "We've had 2% economic growth this year, without a real government."

Belgium will no doubt emerge from the latest crisis - but it is not clear in what shape.

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