(Con)federalism in Belgium is not a problem, it’s a solution

Brussels, June 19, 2014

As I often say to my students, federalism is not a problem, it’s a solution. So, we should consider federalism as a solution.

In order to respond to the questions on the development of federalism in Belgium and its relevance in dealing with tensions between the population groups that make up Belgium, I believe, that the question of ambiguity must be addressed [1]. This point is clearly crucial, because it affects how we understand words, concepts and ideas, which, by a natural or historical process, have a life of their own and therefore evolve and undergo transformation. Ambiguity refers to the capacity of words to take on multiple interpretations and hence multiple possible meanings. It creates uncertainty, and where it affects critical variables, it will tend to destabilise our understanding of the system and impede dialogue, or even make it impossible while it persists.

It is with this in mind that I would like to single out two ideas which make their appearance in Kris Deschouwer’s discourse right from the start, but which also contaminate overall relations between the actors in the Belgian political system. The first of these is the use of the ethno-linguistic concept as a basis for a territorial, political or institutional analysis in the twenty-first century. The second is federalism itself, and its modern-day extension or corollary, confederalism.

1. The functional viability of the concept of ethnicity in 21st century federalism

There is no denying that the concept of ethnicity took over from that of race in the ideological system of those who devised the State reforms up to the 1970s and early 1980s. Moreover, it probably remained active for longer in Flanders and Brussels. The same is true of the use of language as the driver of federalism – something which occurred from the time of the first meetings of the Walloon Assembly in 1912, where there was a clash between a Walloon territorial vision and a linguistic vision involving the defence of the fransquillons – the French-speakers in Brussels and then in Flanders. This process was intensified firstly by the rift in the early 1920s between these defenders of the fransquillons and those who described themselves as regionalists and federalists, and secondly, by the emergence of the cultural communities. The latter appeared earlier than is generally remembered: the first experiments in this direction date back to the late 1930s. For, although the development of the regions represents part of an attitude and a broad trend found at European level if not more widely, the same is not true of the cultural communities, which are definitely an innovation in the development of federalism. The historians Jean-Pierre Nandrin and Pierre Sauvage argue that the concept emerged in the 1930s. The notion of the people’s community or Volksgemeenschap, which found favour with the Flemish movement, was, it is suggested, borrowed from the German Volksgemeinschaft and Herder’s paradigm of romanticism [2]. We could also follow the sociologist Claude Javeau in tracing the origins of this notion to Ferdinand Tönnies and his work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, published in 1887, which took an equally perilous approach in defining the notion of community with reference to individual links based on blood [3]. In 1936, the Research Centre for State Reform recognised the existence of two ‘main cultural communities’ [4]. The Centre defined the concept of community as follows: ‘the term is a modern one involving some very old ideas, which, however, have taken on a new psychological value. It describes the state of attachment to a cultural group by all the fibres of one’s being; it places less emphasis on political and material elements than on cultural and linguistic factors. It in fact reflects a very noble and very respectable reality. The community is an entity that has genuine rights. The elite cannot develop properly and fulfil its educational mission unless it remains in close contact with the community’ [5].

The notion of ethnicity, which was dear to Guy Héraud [6] and Charles-François Becquet [7], and indeed to Maurice Bologne [8] and Maurits Van Haegendoren [9], was to be the last incarnation of a way of thinking which in Wallonia was broadly challenged by the Manifesto for Walloon Culture of 1983, which, contrary to what its name might suggest, laid the foundations of a regionalism in Wallonia built on truly territorial and civic bases. Here, it is the geographical limits of the territorial space that underpin the citizenship of the federated entity, regardless of nationality. According to this way of thinking, which has received legal corroboration in the Maastricht Treaty, an inhabitant of Wallonia is a Walloon, regardless of his or her origins. This text expressed the strong idea that “All those who live and work in the Wallonia region are undeniably part of Wallonia. All respectable human ideas and beliefs are also part of Wallonia. (…) Being a straightforward community of human beings, Wallonia whishes to emerge as an appropriate entity which opens itself to the entire world.”

So, personally, even if I know that ethnicity, ethno-nationalism, and all their declension are still operational in political science and sociology, I would like to disqualify that concept for a discussion about the future of Belgium. We cannot build the future with the word of the past. In 1998, Bart Maddens, Roeland Beerten and Jaak Billiet considered that the dominant Flemish nationalistic discourse could be labelled as ethnic in the sense that the national identity is described as a static cultural heritage that has to be preserved for future generations while in Wallonia, supporters of regionalism generally adopt a more republican approach to national identity. They stressed on the fact that in the Walloon view, regional autonomy is necessary to defend the common social economic interests of the Walloons in the Belgian State, not to preserve a Walloon cultural heritage [10]. A part some exceptions like the surprising declaration of the Minister-President Rudy Demotte during Summer 2013, even defenders of the concept of nation like José Fontaine and the Toudi review have in mind an opened conception referring to a postnational model like the one defended by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas [11] or expressed by the French sociologist Dominique Schnapper in her essay about “The Community of the Citizens, About a modern idea of Nation” [12]. These conceptions are indeed very far of what the French historian Raoul Girardet called the nationalism of the nationalists [13] and are opening the dream of building a nation without nationalism.

2. The ambiguities of the concepts of federalism and confederalism

It was not an historian but one of our greatest constitutionalists – a former Minister of Community Relations – who said that federalism, one of the most complex terms in political science, ‘is not a legal concept: it is in reality a product of history’. And Fernand Dehousse went on to say, during a speech at The Destree Institute on 26 February 1976: ‘It is a system that a number of peoples, a very large number in fact, have adopted at different times and which, accordingly, has presented and still presents today multiple variants across time and space[14].

What Fernand Dehousse was fond of pointing out is that, around the world, the federalist approach has been intended to link together two major and conflicting principles: the need for autonomy and the need for association. Sometimes federalism has a centripetal character, as is the case with the United States or with the European project, whereas at other times it takes a centrifugal form, which has been the approach in Belgium and Switzerland. The main author of the first federalist proposals ever brought before the Belgian Chamber raised the question of the difference between a confederation of States and a federal State. He took the view that this classification was very relative and extremely difficult to pin down – so much so, in fact, that some authors claimed that such differences were non-existent, or that it was the ‘right of session’, as enshrined in Soviet law, that constituted the sole distinguishing mark of a confederation [15]. Moreover, Dehousse confirmed what he had already written in 1938 with Georges Truffaut in L’Etat fédéral en Belgique, namely that a configuration of States is often very similar to a federal State[16].

However, when he compared his draft legislation, which was tabled in the Chamber in 1938 by Georges Truffaut and certain other socialist parliamentarians, with the proposals composed secretly by a number of Liège socialists (including the future member of parliament, Simon Paque, the future minister, Léon-Eli Troclet and the future mayor of Liège, Paul Gruselin), Fernand Dehousse noted that although the latter project retained elements of a federal State, it was closer to a confederation ‘given the extent of the powers it gives to the federated States, which are much greater than in the orthodox federal system’. For this is the heart of the matter, claimed Dehousse: ‘the most essential element of federalism is a rearrangement of the powers and of the functioning of the State apparatus. (…) “The rest is literature” ’. [17]

I would therefore defend the idea that what is important when we are building institutions is not to engage in endless discussions about how those institutions should be labelled – federalism or confederalism? – but to use them concretely as a tool in order to improve citizens’ well-being and to reinforce the harmony of the system as a whole.

3. Is the phenomenon called federalism or confederalism a relevant tool?

In Belgium, federalism has gradually developed since the early 1970s. It is common to describe it as sui generis and centrifugal. The first description refers to the originality of the Belgian State reform, but also to its dynamic character ever since the formulation in the mid-1990s of the ambition to complete the process of federalism. Its description as ‘centrifugal’, meanwhile, refers to the long-term direction of this process. For the Belgian institutional system is subject to ‘pull’ from four different phenomena: firstly, there is a true Flemish nationalism, i.e. an irrational but genuine desire for Flanders to be a country; secondly, there is the intellectual and cultural proximity of France and Wallonia; thirdly, there is the more recent aspiration of greater Brussels for greater regional autonomy; and finally, it should be noted that the German-speaking Community, which in reality is already a fourth region, aspires to detachment from Wallonia to form a fourth federated State in the Belgian system. This quadruple centrifugal movement is so powerful that it has been argued by some people that in 1993, when the Belgian Parliament finally enshrined in Article 1 of the Constitution the principle that Belgium is a federal State composed of Communities and Regions, its institutions were already largely tinged with confederalism.

It is true that, if such a thing exists, classical federalism would be hard to square with the three principles of Belgian federalism: 1. the ‘equipollence of norms’, i.e. the equality of juridical power between the federal law and the law of the federated entities; 2. the exclusivity of the powers located either at federal level or at the level of the federated entities in their respective territories; 3. the exclusive right of deployment, again by the federated entities, of the international aspect of the powers transferred to them, including the right to sign international treaties. It should be added that two of the federated entities of the Belgian federal State have real sovereignty in the exercise of their powers, thanks to a system whereby their members are elected directly and separately, as well as a constitutive autonomy, which represents the germ of constitutional power: the Parliament of Flanders and the Parliament of Wallonia.

I strongly agree with the idea that for the past forty years – I am referring to July 1974 and the Perin-Vandekerckhove Law, the first concrete step in regionalisation – federalism has improved relations between the Flemish and the Walloons and gradually made possible the emergence of a “political collectivity” in Brussels and in the German-speaking community. This formulation of political collectivity, with reference to Wallonia, comes from Francis Delperée[18],in a more inspired moment than when he talked about confederalism as the “fédéralisme des cons“. We should remember that, at that time, in the Seventies, while all the ministers of State Reform were stressing that their proposals were anything but federalism (Freddy Terwagne, Leo Tindemans, François Perin, Jacques Hoyaux, etc.), Francis Delperée proclaimed that Belgium was entering into a federal state, 20 years in advance of the Constitution of 1993.

One of the benefits of the emergence of federalism in Belgium is also the fact that, in our regions, with our competences, we are responsible for our future. And those who were minorities in their state, such as the Walloons, are not really minorities anymore. In Namur, the Walloons are not a minority. They decide by themselves, under their own responsibility. Their policies may succeed or fail, but at least the success or failure is their own. And they can no longer claim that developments that occur are the fault of Flanders or Brussels.

However, I sometimes feel that, as researchers, we confuse virtual models with reality. And, after Paul De Grauwe’s comment about sovereignty in the federal system and transfers of sovereignty, it occurred to me that the Belgian system has survived not because of the relevance of the institutions but because – and this is the reality! – we have transferred sovereignty to our political parties. This is not a positive or negative opinion: it is an observation.

Anyway, I can agree with Jan Verlaers that, in a confederation, you could have a right of session, but not in a federation. Fernand Dehousse also took this into account. But, having said that, how, as Walloons, could we really think that Woodrow Wilson’s right of self-determination, as enshrined in the first article of the United Nations Charter, could apply to all people and all nations worldwide except Flanders?

Regarding the fragility of the federal system, I think it lies in its bipolarity, in the face-to-face confrontation between the Flemish and the French-speakers. This confrontation is reinforced by the idea of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, coming directly from the FDF strategy devised by Serge Moureaux and Antoinette Spaak in 2006 and 2008 and picked up by Rudy Demotte and Charles Picqué, as a war machine against Flanders [19]. Because they seem to think – as Olivier Maingain does – that Brussels is French-speaking. But you know it isn’t.

For me, the alternative is clearly a polycentric view involving four regions or community-regions receiving all the residual competences that are not reserved to the federal level. These regions are based on the four linguistic regions as enshrined in the Constitution (Article 4): the French-speaking region, the Dutch-speaking region, the bilingual Brussels-Capital region, and the German-speaking region. This system means a new balance and a real re-foundation of federalism.

The so-called Brassinne-Destatte project of Reasonable and efficacious federalism in a balanced state [20], built on these four regions and published in 2007, is making headway and has been promoted by Karlheinz Lambertz, Johan Vande Lanotte and Didier Reynders. However, the main difficulty of that model is the fact that it implies a disengagement of the “ethnic” communities – Dutch-speaking and French-speaking – from Brussels in order to create the space for a real regional and political collectivity of Brussels in the 19 municipalities, with its own aims and a real cohesion based on a bilingual approach.

Conclusion : intellectual fertility and institutional creativity

Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels and the German-speaking region are progressively moving from a model built on ethnicity to a model built on citizenship. This shift is occurring, not only because of the superiority of the so-called Republican model but because of the cultural diversity of the 21st century populations and models. The political and institutional system is thus adapting to this evolution.

To conclude, let me highlight the ambiguity of the word “curse” in English. It is a key word in the Re-Bel reflection: (con)federalism: cure or curse? If “curse” means evil, misfortune, bad, “maléfique” in French, in English its meaning is also “woman’s period”. This is characteristic of primitive European society, which rejected women. For my part, I therefore want to return to this meaning because of its associations with fertility – the intellectual fertility and institutional creativity that we need in order to continue building a relevant federalism, or confederalism, if you prefer, which recognises others for a real and positive dialogue in order to balance the needs of autonomy, cooperation, association, transparency, empowerment, social cohesion and, furthermore, democracy.

And never forget that we are included in the European Union framework, which provides some strong guidelines on the future of our institutions and the future of our federal state, even in a potential separation process between the federal entities.


Philippe Destatte


[1] These questions were asked by Paul De Grauwe and Kris Deschouwer at the conference (Con)federalism: cure or curse, Rethinking Belgium’s institutions in the European Context, 11th public event of the Re-Bel initiative, University Foundation, Brussels,19 June 2014. This text is the fair copy of my paper prepared before and during that event.

[2] Jean-Pierre NANDRIN, De l’Etat unitaire à l’Etat fédéral, Bref aperçu de l’évolution institutionnelle de la Belgique, dans Serge JAUMAIN éd., La réforme de l’Etat… et après, L’impact des débats institutionnels en Belgique et au Canada, p. 14, Bruxelles, Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1997. – Pierre SAUVAGE, Jacques Leclercq, Les catholiques et la question wallonne, p. 10, Charleroi, Institut Destrée, 1988. – Il n’est pas impossible de trouver des acceptions plus anciennes mais moins courantes. Par exemple : Les solutions équitables se dégageront d’elles-mêmes si nous réussissons à opposer à la ténacité flamande une égale ténacité wallonne. Pour cela, il faut tout d’abord que la Wallonie prenne conscience d’elle-même, de sa communauté linguistique et morale, de sa force passée et présente. Jules DESTREE, Les Arts anciens du Hainaut, Résumé et conclusions, p. 24, Bruxelles, Imprimerie Veuve Mommon, 1911. – Voir aussi l’intervention de Hervé Hasquin au Conseil de la Communauté française, le 25 juin 1993. CONSEIL DE LA COMMUNAUTE FRANCAISE, Session 1992-1993, Compte rendu intégral, Séance du vendredi 25 juin 1993, p. 18-19, CRI, N°15 (1992-1993).

[3] Claude JAVAUX, De la Belgitude à l’éclatement du pays, dans Hugues DUMONT, Christian FRANCK, François OST et Jean-Louis De BROUWER, Belgitude et crise de l’Etat belge, p. 152, Bruxelles, Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis, 1989. – Ferdinand TöNNIES, Communauté et société, Paris, Puf, 1977.

[4] Lid Studiecentrum tot Hervorming van den Staat.

[5] Robert SENELLE, La Constitution belge commentée, p. 153, Bruxelles, Ministère des Affaires étrangères, 1974.

[6] Guy HERAUD, L’Europe des ethnies, Préface d’Alexandre MARC, Nice, CIFE, 1963. – G. HERAUD, Qu’est-ce que l’ethnisme ? dans L’Europe en formation, n°76-77, Juillet-Août 1966.

[7] Charles-François BECQUET, L’Ethnie française d’Europe, Paris, Nouvelles Editions latines, 1963.

[8] Guy HERAUD & Hendrik BRUGMANS, Philosophie de l’ethnisme et du fédéralisme, coll. Etudes et documents, Nalinnes, Institut Destrée, 1969.

[9] Maurits VAN HAEGENDOREN, Un fédéralisme honteux, dans Belgique 1830-1980 : la réforme de l’Etat, Numéro spécial de L’Europe en formation, p. 89-93. – M. VAN HAEGENDOREN, Nationalisme en Federalisme, Politieke Bedenkingen, Antwerpen, De Nederlandsche Boekhandel, 1971.

[10] Bart MADDENS, Roeland BEERTEN & Jaak BILLIET, The National Consciousness of the Flemings and the Walloons, An Empirical Investigation, in Kas DEPREZ and Louis VOS, Nationalism in Belgium, Shifting Identities, 1780-1995, p. 204, London, MacMillan, 1998.

[11] Jürgen HABERMAS, Après l’Etat-nation, Une nouvelle constellation politique, Paris, Fayard, 1998.

[12] Dominique SCHNAPPER, La Communauté des citoyens, Sur l’idée moderne de nation, Paris, Gallimard, 1994.

[13] Raoul GIRARDET, Le nationalisme français, 1870-1974, p. 16, Paris, Seuil, 1983.

[14] Fernand DEHOUSSE, Les projets fédéralistes de 1938 à nos jours, dans Jacques LANOTTE éd., L’histoire du mouvement wallon, Journée d’étude de Charleroi, 26 février 1976, p. 27, Charleroi, Institut Destrée, 1978.

[15] Ibidem, p. 28.

[16] Fernand DEHOUSSE et Georges TRUFFAUT, L’Etat fédéral en Belgique, p. 15, Liège, Editions de l’Action wallonne, 1938.

[17] F. DEHOUSSE, Les projets fédéralistes…, p. 31 et 37.

[18] Francis DELPEREE, Histoire des mouvements wallons et avenir de la Wallonie, dans J. LANOTTE éd., L’histoire du Mouvement wallon…, p. 85-100.

[19] Jean-Marie KLINKENBERG & Philippe DESTATTE, De Zoektocht naar culturele autonomie in Wallonië en Franstalig Brussel: van cultuurgemeenschap tot regionale bekoring, in p. Mark VAN DEN WIJNGAERT red., Van een unitair naar een federal Belgïe, 40 jaar beleidsvorming in gemeenschappen en gewesten (1971-2011), Studie naar aanleiding van 40 jaar Vlaams Parlement, p. 79-80, Brussel, Vlaams Parlement – ASP, 2011. – See also Ph. DESTATTE, L’idée fédéraliste dans les Etats-nations, Regards croisés entre la Wallonie et le monde, Bruxelles-Charleroi, Presses interuniversitaires européennes – Institut Destrée, 1999. – La Wallonie, une région en Europe, Nice – Charleroi, CIFE – Institut Destrée, 1997.

[20] Jacques BRASSINNE DE LA BUISSIERE & Philippe DESTATTE, Een billijk en efficiënt federalisme voor een evenwichtige Staat, Namur, 24 Februari 2007.

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3 commentaires
  1. Je suppose que “configuration of states” peut être traduit par “confédération d’Etats”. C’est bien, Philippe, que tu puisses défendre ces idées dans ce genre d’assemblées. J’avais lu ce que Vincent de Coorebyter avait dit du confédéralisme en 2008 puis ce que le CRIPS a dit plus tard dans un dossier paru en 2012 je pense. Peut-être est-on en train d’aller vers ce que tu proposes avec le NON du CDH. C’est-à-dire que, à son corps défendant, le CDH précipite une évolution qui ne va pas dans le sens de son unitarisme. La distinction entre le centre-droite (je trouve que c’est centre-droite qu’il faut dire mais je me trompe peut-être) et le centre-gauche n’est peut-être pas très grande, mais je crois à ce que plusieurs sociologues disent à savoir que les partis reflètent vraiment des orientations ancrées (cela ne justifie pas la particratie, mas c’est autre chose). De sorte que nous allons aller petit à petit vers le confédéralisme au moins assumé puisqu’il existe sans doute déjà. Ton papier me permettra d’écrire dans le prochain VIGILE. Au Québec, les ges sont fascinés par ce qui se passe en Ecosse et en Catalogne, alors que pourtant, ce qui se passe dans l’Etat belge aurait plus de chances de déboucher sur des formules très poussées d’autonomie. Comme tu le sais, j’ai une réserve à l’égard de l’Union européenne qui me semble faire planer une menace grave sur la souveraineté, même des Etats souverains.

    En tout cas, c’est un bel exposé!

    • phd2050 a dit:

      Merci José. On sait qu’il est très rare que le Droit précède la société. Je pense que c’est la même chose ici : la culture et les pratiques sont déjà probablement confédérales alors qu’on affirme seulement un fédéralisme avancé dans lequel on est entré en 1980. On aurait presque pu écrire en 1993 dans la Constitution que la Belgique est un État fédéral. Il est flagrant du reste que la NVA et Bart de Wever fassent bouger les lignes mêmes quand ils restent au balcon. La dernière réforme de l’État l’a largement démontré. Mais c’est un parti à manipuler avec précaution car il n’est pas à l’abri de ce qu’a connu la Volsksunie au moment du Pacte d’Egmont (1977) : enfanter, ou réenfanter une monstruosité fascisante : le Vlaams Blok. Ce risque ne lui est pourtant pas réservé : il faut relire les “Réflexions sur les réalités et la prospective belges” de Raymond Rifflet (1980) lorsqu’il parlait du danger de “régional-socialisme” pour le PS.

  2. NDOYE Alpha a dit:

    La (con) fédération est indispensable pour mettre plus en évidence la citoyenneté que l’ethnicité. Elle renforce également l’autonomie de gestion des Régions fédérales et l’unité de la Belgique.
    Cependant, la pérennité de l’intégrité de la Belgique dépendra aussi de la dimension transnationale de ses villes motrices, comme Bruxelles.
    Pourquoi pas une réflexion plus approfondie autour du thème :
    « L’intégrité durable de la Belgique : exemple, le Grand Bruxelles-Amsterdam. ».
    Cette initiative permettra de briser toute forme de régionalisme, de nationalisme et d’ethnisme. Bruxelles, par sa « fusion » avec Amsterdam, se distinguera d’avantage à la fois des autres Régions et villes de la Belgique. « Bruxelles » deviendra la concurrente de Grand Paris et elle ne sera plus récupérable pour un quelconque projet d’indépendance d’une entité fédérale.
    Ce nouveau dispositif territorial favorisera la dimension européenne du lien entre les communautés flamande et wallonne (sans exclure la communauté germanique). Cette dimension conduira à la fédération autour de projets vitaux, des francophones et des néerlandophones d’Europe. Toute ville de l’UE, « proche » de cette nouvelle métropole, au risque d’être isolée ou d’être absorbée par Grand Paris, et perdre son importance (pour les villes françaises de l’Est), ou souhaitant échapper au « centralisme d’Etat », aura intérêt à joindre Grand Bruxelles-Amsterdam. Cette jonction est vitale pour l’émergence européenne des villes « voisines », surtout celles de l’Est de la France: Reims, Lille…
    Grâce à ce nouveau territoire transnational, les divergences entre communautés flamande et wallonne, et surtout leurs élites, deviendront marginales. Les enjeux auront changé et transcenderont toutes les identités. Les villes de la Flandres et de la Wallonie seront « reconfigurées » et influeront sur leurs régions et communautés majoritaires. L’UE a pour vocation d’effacer les frontières politique, sociale, culturelle, économique et administrative. Mais elle a aussi comme ambition de faire émerger des villes transnationales et cosmopolites.
    Ainsi, avec Grand Bruxelles-Amsterdam, la Belgique peut anticiper le projet de l’UE, en accélérant « la refonte territoriale » d’une partie de la France jusqu’à celle des Pays-Bas.
    L’intégrité durable de la Belgique passera par la solidarité et le renforcement d’échanges entre ses communautés et entités territoriales au niveau national et européen pour faire face aux défis du 21 eme siècle. La (con) fédération doit entraîner l’émergence des villes belges au-delà de leur frontière pour une convergence positive de vision de la Belgique de demain.

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