William H. Riker once called federalism ‘the constitutionally assured potential for local government to disrupt’ (i). Disruptions of different (pre-) federal systems can certainly be witnessed currently in the European Union. Within a timeframe of less than two weeks three prominent European regions voiced their claims for (more) independence in suddenly very concrete terms. In Catalonia, Scotland and Flanders separatist political movements like the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), the Catalan Convergència i Unió (CiU) and the Flemish Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) have grown in political power and they intend to use it.

By Thomas Vandamme

I will not go into the underlying reasons for the reinforcement of these long standing claims to independence such as the issues related to so-called ‘transfer federalism’ (wealthy regions subsidizing weaker regions), insufficient representation at the EU level, cultural, linguistic and historic reasons etc. Those themes have been picked up by others elsewhere. What I would like to address is the organization of the democratic process, the proper democratic platform, available to voice demands for more autonomy (if not complete independence). In that respect the case of Flanders stands out from the Scottish and Catalan scenarios in a fundamental way.

Whereas in Scotland and Catalonia, the separatist agenda is channeled through the organization of a referendum (Scotland) or early regional elections (Catalonia), the Flemish democratic platform used to express the separatist agenda were the municipal elections. At this juncture, it should be emphasized that usually municipal elections in Belgium serve their purpose well. They tend to focus on local agenda issues and their outcome determines to a considerable extent the political color of local government (the mayor usually being the first candidate of the winning party in the respective city/commune). In short, the country is ‘blessed’ with a healthy system for local democracy and accountable local government.

Yet, that system was heavily distorted in the elections of 14 October 2012 in which the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (or ‘N-VA’) had won a landslide victory. The different (and diverse) local political agendas were overshadowed completely by the national agenda. The Flemish separatists proclaimed these elections to be the ‘ultimate test’ that would inform us whether Flanders was ready for the big jump towards a ‘confederal Belgium’ (which is a euphemism to appease the more moderate groups in Flemish society; the party’s manifesto clearly states in article 1.1 that its ultimate goal is to reshape Flanders into ‘an independent republic and a new member state of the EU’).

The electoral success of the N-VA did not silence critical minds though. A number of political commentators have heavily criticized the fact that the municipal elections were ‘hijacked’ by the N-VA as they were used for an entirely different purpose than to foster local democracy and good local government. From that perspective it was indeed ominous that in his victory speech Bart de Wever, political leader of the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie and the new ‘mayor-elect’ of Antwerp, Flanders’s biggest city, chose to address federal Prime Minister Di Rupo rather than his new municipal flock: “today is an important day in countering the federal tax-government of Mr. Di Rupo and a major step towards the confederal state of Belgium” (please note again the ‘confederal euphemism’).

I concur with the abovementioned critique that local democracy is not the proper democratic forum for separatist political ambitions, not in Belgium or in any other state for that matter. At the same time, one must not deny political parties with national ambitions the necessary ‘outlet’ for their vision on how to shape the future political status of their region.

At this juncture, a comparative federalist view may be in point. Belgian federalism is often characterized as a ‘consociational system’. The different cultural / linguistic groups that make up the federation enjoy a great deal of autonomy but also mutual veto power in the sense that all major decisions must be taken by ‘grand coalitions’. Increasingly, the federal and regional policies have become so intertwined (not in the least under influence of cross cutting EU policies) that in order for the country to function a ‘deliberation committee’ was institutionalized, combining both the federal and the regional governments that must take decisions by consensus. In such consociational system it is essential that the different groups dispose of the maximum set of tools to operate their internal democratic decision taking. Thus, decisions on what the next step should be for a political community in a wider constitutional constellation should be decided by that community on a level that represents all the members of that community as such (qualitate qua).

If one keeps this in mind, it is interesting to make a comparison between Belgian and Spanish federalism (Spain too can be regarded as a consociational system). The striking difference is that under Spanish constitutional law the executive of the Catalan Comunidad Autónoma could create a democratic forum for state reform by dissolving the Catalan Parliament. This prerogative (it can be found in art. 75 of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia) was what Catalan President Artur Mas resorted to on the 25th of September 2012 when his government called for early elections (to be held on 25 November this year) whereby those elections take the form of a quasi-referendum on the future constitutional position of Catalonia inside (or outside?) the Kingdom of Spain. Under Belgian constitutional law, the Flemish Government (in which the N-VA is a key-coalition partner) does not have that prerogative. Article 117 of the Belgian Constitution denies the governments of the Belgian Régions and Communautés the right to dissolve the respective regional parliaments from which they draw their support (the so-called ‘legislature parliament’ system, a system also in place for the European Parliament). Within that constitutional framework the forces of democracy may have to seek other ‘outlets’ to further their political (separatist) agenda.

The least one can say is that the N-VA’s abuse of the local elections as a stepping stone for its separatist ambitions was not elegant. Yet what were its alternatives? In the bigger scheme of redrawing the lines of the Belgian state structure, the proper tools for ‘disrupting the system’ (to put it again in Ryker’s words) should be reconsidered. The decision on what the next step should be for a political community in a given wider constitutional constellation should be decided by that community on a level that unites the members of that community qualitate qua. Calling for early Flemish parliamentary elections with the notion that these elections will serve as a quasi-referendum on the Flemish stance regarding its future status would have been a good tool to achieve such a democratic forum.

Disruption of a country’s constitutional system to improve its functioning or even dismantling it is one thing, disrupting the system of local government that has little direct bearing on such issues is quite another. It would seem preferable that from that perspective, useful lessons can be drawn from comparative federalism. The Spanish/Catalan example demonstrates that the first step must be to organize regional democracy adequately and such organization calls for the right of the executive to dissolve its parliaments and let the regional political community as such decide on its future constitutional position, without frustrating the local democratic process.

Dr. Thomas A.J.A. Vandamme is lecturer and researcher in European Law at the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance. His personal page can be accessed here.

(i) William H. Riker. The Development of American Federalism, Boston, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1987, p. 74

Author :