David Pestieau: "Belgium can be prevented from splitting if the people get involved"
Perhaps the division of Belgium by the nationalists by 2024 can be stopped? In what way is the solidarity movement for the flood victims a huge sign of hope? Why is the PTB flying Belgium’s black-yellow-red flag? We met David Pestieau, vice-president of the Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB-PVDA), on the occasion of the release of his manifesto for the unity of Belgium.
David Pestieau starts his book on the unity of the country with his feet in the mud of Liège: "On July 20, the national day of mourning, I am in Pepinster, one of the places most affected by the tragedy. Many people come from Ath, Ostend, Antwerp... with the SolidariTeams. Many of the people affected by the disaster could not believe the outpour of solidarity. That same evening, Bart De Wever said on a television channel that he would like a union between Flanders and the Netherlands and that he would rather die a "southern Dutchman" than a Belgian. The gap between the people and some of those in the Rue de la Loi (seat of the Belgian government, editor's note) could not be better illustrated."
The N-VA and Vlaams Belang have strong electoral support...
David Pestieau. Yes, but not for their separatist project. The vast majority of the population is against the division of the country, including in the North. All the polls show that only 10 to 15 % of people want a separation. Better still, two thirds of the inhabitants of Flanders want more Belgium... Yes, there are two countries in Belgium, but they are not the two countries that Bart De Wever talks about.
This is nicely summed up by the Flemish writer Tom Lanoye: "Belgium is made up of two different countries: The Belgians on one side, and their politicians on the other.” Behind his separatist project, De Wever wants above all to break solidarity and cooperation.
David Pestieau. The liberal ideology promoted by De Wever and the others is every man for himself. They repeat: "Look at your neighbour, the Walloon, the immigrant, the unemployed profiteer, he earns more than you, he has this as an advantage, you don't, he takes advantage of you, etc." This is a way of preventing people from looking at what lies underneath: towards those who rule, those who have the money, those in charge of the country as it is. But this discourse is not going to work: In the population, people spontaneously help each other across linguistic borders, as we saw with the support for carers during the coronavirus crisis, and now with the help for flood victims.
The problem is that these nationalist parties are holding the Rue de la Loi political bubble hostage. The current debates in the traditional party headquarters are once again about what will be unravelled, what will remain of the federal state and social security. In particular with the Parti socialiste (Socialist Party) in Wallonia with an increasingly regionalist current, Vooruit (Flemish Socialists), the CD&V (Dutch-speaking Social Christian Party) in Flanders.
2024, that seems a long way off...
David Pestieau. But it is important to mobilize now. Because the nationalists have a strategy. They'll campaign on racism, on anti-establishment, and on their profile as opponents of the federal government... But once the election victory is in the bag, they'll say: "the voters gave us a mandate to split the country." Obviously, since the population is against it, they hide their separatist agenda under complicated terms.
How do they do it?
David Pestieau. They move forward without revealing themselves. As Jan Jambon, the Flemish minister-president N-VA (the Flemish nationalist party, editor’s note), said: "Confederalism is just another word for splitting, because the Flemish are not yet ready for independence." And so they come out with this word, 'confederalism,' which almost nobody really understands. Then they reassure us: "Belgium is not going to disappear! Don't worry, there will always be the royal family, the army, foreign affairs…". But in fact, confederalism means turning the federal state into an empty shell where health, unemployment, justice, police, civil protection, fire brigade, etc. will be split up.
This scenario was already present in the agreement that the PS and the N-VA were negotiating in the summer of 2020, trying to form a federal government. De Wever wants to do it again in 2024. The N-VA has learned the lessons of what happened in Catalonia (the Spanish region tried to declare independence in 2017, editor's note). Because once you declare independence, you have problems: recognition by the European Union and other states, etc. And, on the other hand, the population is not in favour. So they had to find something: "We're divorced, but we still keep a house together with some furniture and from time to time we come to see each other." But for everything else, you're separated. In a household, separating the accounts, not living under the same roof three quarters of the time, is the first step towards a complete divorce.
So the scenario of a Flemish declaration of independence is out of the question?
David Pestieau. No, it's the one pursued by the Vlaams Belang (Flemish extreme right-wing party, editor’s note), it's the power grab. It is the unilateral declaration of independence proclaimed in the Flemish Parliament, and then we negotiate on its basis. It's a scenario that is not at all impossible. It is possible.
And it also plays into the hands of those who want divisive confederalism. De Wever has raised the question of an unconstitutional power grab, a kind of coup d'état. He is saying that we will have to accept his conditions of confederalism, even if it means bypassing the Constitution. Otherwise, there will be "civil unrest". He insinuates that if Vlaams Belang is out of the picture after 2024, Vlaams Belang voters will feel betrayed - because they won't have achieved independence - and will take to the streets, much like the Trump supporters on Capitol Hill. And this is where De Wever presents himself as the 'peacemaker' and puts forward his solution: divisive confederalism. He intends to use the fear of the complete split scenario to impose his own.
So we see that Vlaams Belang and the N-VA have two complementary roles: the first one opens gaps and then the N-VA pretends to be a responsible party. But they have the same goal: to achieve an independent, pro-business and authoritarian Flanders.
What about the French-speaking parties and the Parti socialiste?
David Pestieau. Since 2020, the PS has taken an increasingly regionalist turn. Paul Magnette (president of the Socialist Party, editor’s note) has appointed Pierre-Yves Dermagne and Thomas Dermine, who are regionalists, as federal ministers. This turn of events pleases the N-VA, which has always dreamed of having a partner on the French-speaking side that also wants to go for a split.
To hear you tell it, the fight seems to be lost already...
David Pestieau. Not at all, on the contrary. A popular movement can prevent this. That's the whole point of the "We Are One" campaign we launched and the book. We can still go in another direction. The majority continues to oppose the splitting of the country.
We want to move the country towards more cooperation and unity, instead of more competition and division. With strong alternatives such as re-federalizing health, energy and employment at the national level. We're going to run a campaign to win minds to win this battle.
There is the massive distribution of Belgian "We Are One" flags, T-shirts, stickers at the big sporting events this summer, the Euro, the Olympic Games and at the World Cycling Championships in Belgium. It is a cultural battle to counter the Flemish nationalist identity movement, which wants to create a "Flemish feeling" through the distribution of Flemish flags, films about Flanders...
There is also the struggle in the trade unions, mutual societies and associations for the unity of the working class and the country.
What about your book?
David Pestieau. We want to contribute content, explain our vision in more depth. That's the purpose of this short and accessible book. We want to debate with as many people as possible in all corners of Belgium. I'm going on a year-long tour of Belgium with the book.
The polls show that the N-VA and Vlaams Belang have more than 50 % between them in Flanders...
David Pestieau. Polls are often used as a political weapon to impose a particular scenario. We see this in France, with the announced Macron vs. Le Pen match in 2022: the message is that the results of the elections are already known and that voting is therefore of little use.
There are two and a half years left before 2024. A lot can happen. But it all depends on the main question: Will the workers and young people join the battle, take the debate out of the Rue de la Loi bubble? If they intervene, they upset all the scenarios.
We saw it with health care. Up until a year and a half ago, there was a certain unanimity to move towards the separation of health care. Today, following the COVID-19 crisis, there is a trend, not only among the population, but also among health experts, trade unions, mutual insurance companies, etc., to move towards a re-federalization of health care. It just goes to show that things can change in a few months, a few years.
And what role does the PTB want to play?
David Pestieau. The idea of the authentic left is that politics does not belong to professionals. Politics is not a passive thing. We don't consume politics. We are protagonists. And from the moment the people become actors, they can change things. We see this again with the issue of flooding: people say "politicians do almost nothing to save people". And what happens? People save people. When they get active, they can do great things. When they remain passive, nothing good happens.
There's a match between now and 2024 and there are predictions. But the match has yet to be played. And now we're in the preparatory phase (laughs).
What would be the impact of a split on our wallet?
David Pestieau. Not only would it cost more money, but it would be us paying the bill! For example, our medicines would be more expensive. If we split up the common and solidarity-based public insurance that we call Social Security, we would be less protected. The common pot where we contribute would be smaller and, in case of a hard blow, would be less effective for us. If you don't have enough people contributing when there are major problems, you have fewer opportunities to help people.
Already today, the Belgian government is not the best at negotiating good prices with the pharmaceutical industry. But it is clear that if the Walloon government or the Flemish government does it, it will be even less advantageous. The more we are, the stronger we are and the more weight we can carry in a negotiation. That is why the nationalists want to cut the unions and the mutual insurance in two. In order to pass their measures, their austerity (which we will have to pay for), it is necessary to weaken the resistance, to take away the power of the mutual insurance or the unions to act.
Because you have to know that today, Social Security is co-managed by the unions, that health care is co-managed by the mutual insurance companies. The mutual insurance and the unions therefore have a say in this. Of course, one might wonder if it couldn't be better. But with the split, the counter-power of the mutual insurance and the union would disappear. And this is the strategic goal of the employers in the north of the country: leave each individual alone in front of the State, the administration.
Readers ask us what to say in Wallonia to those who say "if we unite again, all the money will go to Flanders", in Flanders to those who say "too much money goes from Flanders to Wallonia". Who is right?
David Pestieau. The first transfer that takes place in Belgium is the transfer from the workers' pockets to the rich. During the previous parliamentary term, 9 billion euros went from the workers' pockets to the bank accounts of large companies and into dividends for shareholders. That's 2200 euros per household (in Wallonia, Brussels or Flanders) lost per year! That is the first thing that needs to be challenged.
Yes, but these transfers between regions exist...
David Pestieau. Contrary to what one might think, Belgium is the federal country where there are the fewest transfers between regions - two to three times less than in other federal states such as Switzerland, Canada or Germany. In Germany, for example, Bavaria received money from the other Länder (regions in Germany) 40 years ago because it was poorer. They invested that in infrastructure, in industry, in roads and the region is richer today. So now it is Bavaria that is transferring funds to other Länder.
In Belgium, this is not the case. But these changes in development in the regions are a law of capitalism. Wallonia was much richer than Flanders during the first 120 years of Belgium's existence. And it's only in the last 70 years that this has changed. And it can change the other way very quickly.
As long as Wallonia remains less wealthy, will these transfers continue?
David Pestieau. The famous transfers from Flanders to Wallonia are in fact transfers of social security and taxes linked to interpersonal solidarity. Someone who is rich in Antwerp or Charleroi will give more money to the Social Security than they will receive. Someone who is poorer in Charleroi or Antwerp will receive more. There are more poor people in Charleroi than in Antwerp, but that doesn't mean that the money goes from Antwerp to Charleroi. It is a transfer between people. But let's take that logic to the extreme.
Today, the inhabitants of the Ostend district "receive" money from the rest of Belgium, because they are on average poorer than the national average. Same thing for Liège. The districts of Walloon Brabant and Leuven are wealthier and give more than they receive. Are we now going to ask for a split between "rich" Walloon Brabant and "poor" Liège, or between "poor" Ostend and "rich" Leuven?
You dedicate this book to “all those of the working class who get up every morning to produce the wealth of this country”. Did you write it for them and, if so, why?
David Pestieau. First, let's make it clear that if you buy it, you get two books for the price of one. For only 12.5 euros (laughs). It's a short, easy-to-read book with two entries. An entry that is a manifesto, a political statement. What do we want? How are we going to do it?
And then there is a second entry in the book: 20 questions and answers about Belgium. How was Belgium born? Why is it so complicated? What does it mean to split up health care or the police? We try to answer questions that people may hear and not understand. We want to make it accessible. In the introduction to this section, I quote the French humorist Coluche who once said: "Once a technocrat answers your question, you no longer understand the question you asked him". Replace "technocrat" with "Belgian politician" and you are close to the truth (laughs).
But these institutional issues remain complex...
David Pestieau. Making things complicated, having language that uses all kinds of technical terms, is primarily to hide the real issues. We don't want to tell the truth because if we did, people would revolt. For example, the traditional parties are discussing splitting up health care. The PS and the N-VA say: "We're going to split up the health care organization, but we're going to keep federal Social Security. The funding will remain federal. Don't worry."
So it's not that serious?
David Pestieau. On the contrary. To use again the example of a couple: if you have a joint account but each one can spend money as he or she wants, sooner or later the arrangement will blow up. Unless you're a billionaire. It's the same thing here.
They know very well that once the organization is split up, the rest will follow. This is what happened in education. In 1980, there were two federal ministers of education, one Dutch-speaking and one French-speaking. It didn't take ten years for education to be split. De Wever explicitly says that he wants to use the same tactics.
In health care, those who claim that "we have split up the health care organization but don't worry, Social Security is going to stay federal" are wrong. This will lead to its split. Social Security is the cathedral of the world of labour, built stone by stone by the working class. That's what saved us during the coronavirus epidemic.
You can orderr the bookat www.ptb.be/we-are-one-livre