Explaining Belgium Simply
Tl;dr: Belgium is a federal state made out of regions and communities that each take care of different political responsibilities.
Since we Belgians have the most complicated political system in the world, I thought you’d want to know how it works. So strap up, we’re in for a bumpy ride.
We’ll take a top-down approach: from the federal state to communes.
Here’s how Belgium works.
The Federal State
Belgium, such as the US, Germany, or Australia, is a federal state, meaning it is made of one big part managed by the federal government, and of smaller parts that also have their own parliaments and governments.
Germany for example is made out of “lander”; the US is made out of states (Texas, Nevada, California); Belgium is made out of regions and communities. The capital of Belgium is Brussels.
There are three regions in Belgium: Flanders, up north; Wallonia, down south; and Brussels in the middle.
Regions mainly manage economic affairs. If you want to look for a job, you’ll have to go to a certain regional agency in Brussels, a different one in Wallonia and a different one in Flanders: looking for jobs is “regionalized”, meaning that it is a matter regions take care of. The federal state has no queries about it.
The capital of Flanders is Brussels, the capital of Brussels is…Brussels and the capital of Wallonia is Namur.
Communities take care of cultural matters: education and sport, mainly. There are three different communities: the Flemish Community, the Fédération Wallonia-Bruxelles Community, and the Germanophone Community. “But what about the Brussels community?” might you ask. Patience.
Geographically, communities are spread out weirdly. The Flemish Community is present where people speak Flemish so that they can cater to their cultural needs. As such, the Flemish Community is present in Flanders and Brussels, as you can see on the map.
Mind that the Flemish Community in fact doesn’t really exist, it merged into the Flemish Region in 1980 to make things easier.
The Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, or Francophone (French-speaking) Community, is present wherever people speak French: in Wallonia and Brussels. Since in Brussels, some speak Flemish and others speak French, both communities are present to cater to people’s needs.
Finally, the Germanophone Community caters to about 80 000 people in the east of the country, where people speak German.
“But wait, you didn’t say that there was a German community, did you?”
Indeed, I didn’t say it because there is none. This eastern part of Belgium is part of Wallonia when it comes to economic matters, but is “culturally independent”.
As such, people in Eupen (a city in the German-speaking region) are in Wallonia for all economic-related matters, but in the Germanophone Community for all cultural-related matters.
To summarize: in the Flemish Region, you have the Flemish Community and that’s it (they have now merged). In the Brussels Region, you have the Flemish Community and the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles.
In the Walloon Region, there is the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles and the Germanophone Community. As such, people speak Flemish in Flanders, Flemish and French in Brussels, and French and German in Wallonia.
Regions are themselves divided into provinces, a heritage from Napoleonian times (which the French also kept but with a different name: départements).
There are 5 provinces in Flanders and 5 provinces in Wallonia. Brussels, being not very big, has none. The provinces are in Flanders:
Province of Western Flanders with Brugge as capital.
Province of Eastern Flanders with Ghent as capital.
Province of Antwerpen with…Antwerpen as capital.
Province of Flemish Brabant with Leuven as capital.
Province of Limburg with Hasselt as capital.
The provinces are in Wallonia:
Province of Hainaut with Mons as capital.
Province of Namur with Namur as capital.
Province of Walloon Brabant with Wavre as capital.
Province of Liège with Liège as capital.
Province of Luxembourg with Arlon as capital.
Communes are the equivalent of city districts, with one city-hall per commune.
There are 581 communes in Belgium. Nothing special about it.
The Strange Case of Brussels
There is a documentary called “The Brussels business” that tells the story of the +10 000 lobbyists influencing politics in the city.
Why are there so many lobbyists in Brussels, in fact, more than in Washington DC?
Because there are many parliaments and governments located there.
Let’s count them: the EU Parliament, the Belgian Federal Parliament, the Flemish Parliament, the Brussels Parliament, and the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles Parliament.
Each of these parliaments also has a government, except for the EU that has two (the EU Council and the Council of the EU).
Brussels is, therefore, the capital of a continent, a country, two regions, and one community.
The Bottom Line
And that’s the story of how you manage to make a multicultural country work without civil wars.
It may be complicated, expensive, and not super-efficient, but slicing political power as we did increases democracy and makes sure that even if the federal government is blocked for two years, regions can at least keep on working.
The fact that there is no centralization of power is I believe better for the people and the country.
The responsibilities and political views are spread out. There is no almighty politician (like presidents) and the prime minister always leads a majority of parties united within the parliament.
Countries like China do things much faster than we do. Their political system is the anti-Belgian one: all is concentrated into the hands of one political party whose direction is concentrated into the hands of a narrow elite led by a chairman.
The absence of political opposition is what makes China so bloody efficient.
It is also what makes it a dictatorship.
I look around me and think that if inefficiency is the price to pay to live in a democracy, then I’m happy to pay it.