According to Immanuel Kant, it is so easy to remain immature. But it was exactly this immaturity of the Belgium's three cultural communities that led to major tensions in centrally-governed Belgium and ultimately to the series of state reforms which restructured Belgium from 1967 onwards. It soon became clear that shaping autonomy required politicians to take on a lot of responsibility. Using the history of East Belgium as an example, I would like to show you why we need responsible people more than ever, people willing and able to engage in politics – and not just in East Belgium.
The six state reforms (1967-1971, 1980-1985, 1988-1992, 1993, 2001 und 2012-2014) have transformed Belgium into a federal state. Each reform increased the competences and budget of the Council of the German Cultural Community (1973-1983), the Council of the German-speaking Community (1983-2004) and finally the Parliament of the German-speaking Community (since 2004), with more and more decisions being taken in Eupen. But the other side of the coin was that the politicians in Eupen became responsible for these decisions, whether for education and training, for heritage preservation, for the media or the health system, for employment and social policy. On account of this growing responsibility and due to the increased complexity of political problems, East Belgian policymaking has become increasingly professional.
The guiding principles of these state reforms were federalism and subsidiarity. Via the federal principle, the Belgian state wanted to share its powers between the central government in Brussels and the individual federal states (referred to as Communities and Regions), while the intention of subsidiarity was to allow the state to delegate tasks to lower levels when they could be better fulfilled at such levels.
At the same time, the political landscape was changing in East Belgium: Firstly, the generation of politicians responsible for shaping autonomy was moving into retirement, leaving the stage free for younger politicians. These earned their spurs in their parliamentary work with its many new competences, generally ignoring the tensions of the previous decades. Secondly, there was a change in government. Up to 1999, the Christian Social Party (CSP) had been the dominant party, leading every government coalition. But this changed in 1999, when other parties took over government responsibility, excluding the CSP. Moreover, new parties emerged and gained a foothold in the political landscape.
In 1998, all parties represented in the Council presented the federal government with a joint demand for further autonomy. This demand also contained a call to take over powers held by the Region. The period of cacophony in East Belgian politics had come to an end.
Again and again, the Parliament of the German-speaking Community repeated its demand for further powers. In 2007, all parties in the Parliament adopted a unanimous resolution outlining a vision for the future of the German-speaking Community: The Community was to remain part of a federal Belgian state, with the same rights as the other language communities, all this within the framework of the European Union. This vision was backed in 2014 by a declaration of principle endorsed by all parties except one splinter party. The German-speaking politicians called for a four-member Belgium, a "Belgien zu Viert", i.e. East Belgium was to develop into a federal state ("Bundesland") with the same powers as the other Communities and Regions. The aim of this declaration was to reduce red tape and make decision-making more transparent. The East Belgian parties also wanted to see other government structures removed, such as the provinces, in existence since 1830.
Politicians in the German-speaking Community find themselves continually faced with fundamental questions:
- What is the price tag on autonomy and the protection of a minority? A concrete example: Does every law passed by the Walloon Region or the central government in Brussels have to be translated for the German-speaking minority?
- How far should autonomy and the protection of a minority go? A concrete example: Does the minority need specific representation in the two chambers of the Belgium national parliament (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate)? Is the only way for it to have its interests represented at national level?
- What happens when the economically strong Belgian regions withdraw their support? A concrete example: Can the German-speaking minority survive in a society dominated by the other two language communities?
Practical issues are similarly important:
- The institutional landscape is set to continue changing. Should East Belgium exercise further powers alone or should it do so through cooperations?
- Will East Belgium always be able to find the necessary experts to fulfil the tasks accruing to it through further devolution.
Federalism is dependent on solidarity, and this needs to be very carefully balanced.
Autonomy has helped boost the development of the rural and structurally weak areas of East Belgium. While the area around Eupen benefits from its proximity to Liege, Maastricht and Aachen (unemployment rate in 2016: 10.8%), the Belgian Eifel region enjoys virtually full employment (unemployment rate in 2016: 4.3%) due to its proximity to Luxembourg. The overall unemployment rate in East Belgium in 2017 was 7.3%, under that of Belgium as a whole (7.8%).
Looking at the region's motorway links, it is crossed in the north by the Cologne-Brussels motorway and north-south by the Verviers-Trier motorway. Public transport is however not very good. Due to autonomy and the efforts of the region's many small and medium-sized companies, many new jobs have been created over the last few decades. Nevertheless, many East Belgians still commute to work in neighbouring countries and regions. According to official figures, in 2014:
- 3,146 East Belgians worked in the French-speaking region (while 5,086 Walloons worked in East Belgium),
- some 6,000 in Germany (some 500 Germans worked in East Belgium),
- 60 in the Netherlands,
- 376 in Flanders (389 Flemings worked in East Belgium),
- 322 in Brussels (71 Brussels inhabitants worked in East Belgium),
- while 4000 commuted to Luxembourg.
Against this background, East Belgian politicians would like to see the region's economic development put in their own hands. This is why the German-speaking Community is working closely with the Walloon Region, the holder of such powers. At the same time, East Belgian politicians are calling for example for spatial planning powers, allowing them to shape economic policy themselves. Since taking over responsibility for schools, the East Belgian parties have also identified education as a key element of economic development policy, backing this up with a series of measures. The region's apprenticeship system, based on the two pillars of vocational colleges and on-the-job learning) is gaining currency throughout Belgium. The East Belgian youth unemployment rate in 2016 was 13%.
The period between the federalisation of Belgium (completed in 1994) and the present day has not yet come under the scrutiny of historians. One of the reasons for this is the 30-year archiving requirement before documents are released. Nevertheless, the first studies in the fields of sociology, politics and law are beginning to appear. Looking in the mirror could be an exciting task for East Belgian historians.
As you will have seen, East Belgium has changed a lot over the past few decades, on the basis of developments in the 1970's. Their initial intention was to better organise interaction between the French- and Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium. But for the East Belgians, the main focus was on protecting the German language and culture in Belgium. This all triggered a series of six reforms, completely federalising the country. The German-speaking Community is now to a large extent itself responsible for its future. Are you ready and prepared to assume responsibility for yourself and your immediate environment?