Montesquieu Institute: from science to society

Democracy on mutiple levels: experiences from Belgium

Tuesday, January 15 2013, 16:52

The terms 'expansion' and 'intensification' have always been a part of the development of the European Union. In the current situation the EU is bound to, it seems that further integration is more often seen as a threat to democracy. The European Union has been one of the most heated debated topics in the Netherlands, even more so; it was a campaigning theme for the elections of 2012. Our southern neighbours have visualised the European debate as a powerful tool to exert influence on the European construction. This was determined during the first debate of the series: 'The State of European Democracy', organised by the Montesquieu Institute, in cooperation with newspaper Trouw. The debate was dedicated to the views and perspectives of co-founding father Belgium.

There was a high turnout for the debate at the 'Huis van Europa' on January 14, 2013, which indicated that the topic was of high value to the public. Baron Frans van Daele, former right-hand man of Herman van Rompuy, and Peter Bursens, professor in Political Science at the University of Antwerp, travelled to The Hague to the discuss the Belgian state of democracy. The debate was moderated by Hans Goslinga, political columnist for Trouw.

Bursens blames the permissive consensus of the 'European debate' in Belgium to the lack of an explicit and distinct form of debating; a culture of debate. He has a detailed opinion about the intentional preservation of silence concerning the 'EU-theme' in Belgium. It is easier for Belgian politicians to profile themselves and shift the focus toward other topics, which will eventually lead them to better electoral results. In addition, the mass-media in Belgium does not pay much attention to the topic and therefore remain isolated. Politics lingers an 'elite club' in a 'shallow democracy'.

However, according to Bursens more and more Belgian citizens have remarked the impact European policy-making has on their daily lives. Politicians are meeting new needs and perceive the EU as an 'ally to establish political reforms'. The Belgian debate is still fully dedicated to the European policy-making, rather than the involvement of the 'integration question' into the debate, which worries the Dutch more. However, by stimulating the discussion, eurosceptics will find their way to the political arena, as well. Bursens praises the traditional Dutch culture of debate, but recognises the restrictions Belgium has to cope with; mulitilinguality, regional politics and the cordon sanitaire.

On the contrary, baron Van Daele asserts that there definitely is a 'European debate' in Belgium; a stable consensus with certain profundity considering the phenomena Europe. Why? According to Van Daele, Belgians are realists and willing to hand over sovereignity in exchange for actual influence, in order to obtain a form of control on the European construction. He highlights the way Belgium deals with the two large planets in Europe (France and Germany), and their realistic approach towards the euro, which calls for shared efforts, in times of crisis as well. 'The Belgians have sensed instinctively that thanks to the EU their country has been able to have more influence on its direct environment than ever before.' The 'silencing' of the European debate is, according to Van Daele, a conscious choice made by the Belgian people; the Belgians indeed 'know what side to choose.'

Undoubtedly the mix of Flanders and Wallonia slows down the Beglian integration process. However, Bursens notes, Belgium is a miniature of Europe. 'One does not have to be able to get along well, to be able to cooperate.' Van Daele agrees on the different points of view on both the free market as the economic integration in the two regions: 'One would like to see Europe predictably multilaterally organized, but the interpretations of the impact by European decisions' of the community level, are perceived differently per member state.' This makes that Europe still is uninteresting for most of its citizens.

It is clear that there is a two-level democracy: one on the national level and one on European level. But both are important for improving legitimacy. Van Daele is critical: 'Where is the control on the European level? Because if checks are only available on the national level, then the European cooperation does not work properly.' Therefore Van Daele is in favour of a 'European-wide' debate, once Europe made more progression on the federal policy.

But until now, has Europe been our distant friend, while Belgium is our good neighbour? From the audience came a question on a possible revival of the BeNeLux. Both men were positive on this eventual development. 'Small allies do often have common interests and so they are stronger,' according to Bursens. Van Daele added that the bilateral relations between Belgium and the Netherlands always have been strong. But this friendship between good neighbours only renders with 'real matters' and not with 'motherhood and apple pie'. Regional associations might have the key to policy influence, as long as we move to the completion of our European political system.