My Country Shows What Europe Has Become

My Country Shows What Europe Has Become
Photo Illustration by Jan A. Staiger

He could have been anywhere. Delivering a speech to a group of Belgian businessmen this year, Barack Obama warned about the dangers of artificial intelligence, climate change and geopolitical conflict. More local matters were close at hand: Belgium was entering an election year, and its capital, Brussels, home to some of Europe’s most hallowed institutions, had weathered a year of geopolitical shocks. Yet Mr. Obama wouldn’t be drawn into questions about national politics. A visit to the Magritte Museum and the king was the extent of his engagement.

The hesitancy is understandable. In what is billed as the largest election year in human history, with about half of the planet heading to polls, Belgium cuts a rather inconspicuous figure. The country’s politics are colorful and forbiddingly complex; outsiders are prone to be puzzled by a country with a population roughly equal to metropolitan Paris’s that has six governments across three regions and three languages. On June 9, Belgians go to the polls, including for a round of European Parliament voting. Anyone worried about the direction of the continent should pay attention.

For all its singularity, Belgium tells a quintessentially European story. Against a backdrop of ailing public services, precarious labor markets, waning traditional parties and intractable regional divisions, a far right is readying itself for power. In Brussels, the seat of the European Union, rising crime, pollution and decaying infrastructure symbolize a continent in decline. With unusual clarity, Belgium shows what Europe has become in the 21st century: a continent subject to history rather than driving it.

Set within the European panorama of decline, Belgian politics also exhibit some curious features: The work force unionization rate has remained steady at around 50 percent in the past 10 years, and Belgium has had an impressive record on inequality and wages. Yet this has hardly stopped the politics of resentment in the country, which is particularly potent in the Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders.

The far-right party Vlaams Belang is set to triumph there, threatening to break through the cordon sanitaire that was cast around it decades ago. Under a slightly different name, the party was formed in response to the lackluster politics of regionalism in the 1970s, only to reboot itself as fiercely anti-immigrant in the 1980s. Engaging in patient social outreach and carefully tending to its grass-roots base, it has capitalized on the slow retreat of Belgium’s mass parties. It now expects to draw nearly one-third of the Flemish vote — a historically high tally that would establish it as a serious contender for government on the regional level.

In the French-speaking south, the political arithmetic is strikingly different. Geographically, Wallonia has long seemed the ideal breeding ground for right-wing populism. Deindustrialization and demographic decline have ailed the former manufacturing heartland since the 1970s. Yet no far-right contender has managed to step up, and the Walloon Socialist Party, one of the most deeply rooted in Europe, has kept its hand on power, through clientelism and deep pools of personnel. That grip on power is weakening, however: Its membership is aging, and there are plausible challengers both left and right.

Then there is Brussels, home to its own regional government and the national government. Politically, the difficulties lie less in the advance of the right than in the stalling of the rest. Public finances, chiefly under the Socialist Party’s stewardship, are in deep disarray. A scheduled north-south metro line, cause of much municipal distress, is to be delayed by a decade and a half. The liberal Reformist Movement — along with the leftist Workers’ Party and the French-speaking Ecolo party — probably stands to benefit from the turmoil, though few hold out much hope that things will improve markedly.

One of the most diverse cities in the world, the Belgian capital neatly exemplifies Belgium’s contradictory position in the current world system, caught between the regional and the global. Belgium has always acted as a transit zone for greater powers, even when its industrial might and colonial dependencies rivaled those of world leaders. At the same time, the country played a key role in forging some of the institutions that now dominate European politics, from NATO to the European Union. Its multilateral enthusiasm has been unsurprising: A small economy easily susceptible to international pressure, it knew it would always hold more sway inside than outside the tent.

Belgium’s international hopes went beyond mere opportunism, however. For a long time, Belgian politicians and citizens hoped that European integration would release them from their own tribal squabbles. Who needed intricate federal coalitions if the behemoth in Brussels would soon take over? Except for the army and the national museums, all other levers of policy could comfortably be transferred, and Belgium could retire from national politics.

The upward absorption has not come to pass. The European Union remains a halfway house between national government and continental superstate. There is no E.U. army or capacious fiscal apparatus. Consequently, Belgium has been put in an awkward position. Unable to collapse itself into Europe, it is stuck with a ramshackle federal state in which the distribution of tasks is perpetually unclear.

As the ideological glue that allows Belgians to cohabit has come unstuck, the traditional parties of government have found it difficult to retain public backing. Amid a wider fracturing of the vote, Flemish and Walloon voters are now lured by adventurers on right and left. For Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, the head of a seven-party coalition that took nearly two painstaking years to assemble, the prospects are anything but appetizing.

Belgium serves as a stern reminder that there are few bulwarks against the trends that ail European nations. The country is no Italy or Netherlands, where the far right is already in government, and party democracy and its postwar prosperity survive only as faint memories. Yet even with Belgium’s lower inequality rates, higher union membership and comparatively stronger party infrastructure, the march of the far right has also proved eerily unstoppable.

The fragile equilibrium the country maintained throughout the 2010s always surprised observers. In the 2020s, however, there seems no shelter from the century’s hard questions.

Anton Jäger is a lecturer in politics at Oxford University and the author, with Arthur Borriello, of The Populist Moment: The Left After the Great Recession.

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