Ever since the unitary experiment failed and population growth in the Flemish north started to threaten Walloon domination, the idea of federalism started to gain momentum in Belgium. Several state reforms going back to the 1970s have shaped its current form. An asymmetric federalism where a Flemish majority stands on equal footing with a Walloon minority thus saved the country. Since 1993, the first article of the Constitution stipulates that Belgium is a federal state composed of communities and regions (naturally, only two entities were not confusing enough).
Few Belgians however think that federalism will be the final stage in its history. Many (especially Flemish) politicians and observers across party lines would welcome a confederal future for Belgium. A confederation is an association of sovereign member states that, by treaty, have delegated certain of their competences (or powers) to common institutions, in order to coordinate their policies in a number of areas, without constituting a new state on top of the member states. The European Union, while de jure not a confederation could de facto be seen as one. But, as confederalism implies separate states, it would mean the end of Belgium as we know it.
Both federalism and confederalism as political concepts are in other words quite known to students in Belgium. Some might even know the difference between the centrifugal (top-down, like Belgium) and centripetal (bottom-up, like Switzerland) variants of federalism. These concepts are also omnipresent in discussions about the future of the European Union. Some people will revel in the fact that the prospects of advancing in a more federal Europe are not as bright as they once were. Belgium is seen by some as a “mini-Europe”, a test case for its ideas. European leaders are advised to take into account the lessons that can be learned from its capital, Brussels.
Joran Wauters is a Master’s student of International Relations at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland.