Ten theses for the unity of our country

David Pestieau, Vice-president of the PTB-PVDA

Some of the parties on Rue de la Loi* intend to split up our country even further in 2024 and set the people of Brussels, Wallonia and Flanders against each other. However, the vast majority of Belgians are more than fed up with the division of our country and instead want more cooperation, more solidarity and more unity.

That which unites us makes us stronger; that which divides us weakens us. The working class in our country has known this for a long time. Together, those of Liege, Ghent, Brussels, Charleroi, Antwerp and all the other regions have built the workers' movement of our small country. And they have built the wealth of our society and made a strong social security system possible.

Together we are building a movement for the unity of our country, against the threat of a split. The split in our country is anti-social, costly, absurd and brutal. More unity is social, cheaper, efficient and humane. That is why we want the federal state to become the centre of gravity of our country again.

We are one. Nous sommes un.

Raoul we are one

2024 will be a turning point for our country

2024 is a possible tipping point. After the elections that year, the separatist parties want to split our country into two or three parts. A growing part of the Voka, the employers' organisation in the north of the country, is encouraging them to do so. Divide and rule, this would only weaken the working class in this country and benefit the establishment.

Our country has undergone six state reforms. Or rather deformations of the state, because their record is disastrous. They have been detrimental to the politics of the country. The institutions have become more complex and there is considerable waste. The Flemish, Walloon and Brussels governments do not function any better than the federal state. It just takes more time and costs more money.

This country often needs dozens of consultation committees and interdepartmental conferences before a decision is made. It has six governments, with more than fifty ministers and secretaries of state. We have four Ministers of Mobility, all stuck in traffic jams. We have four ministers responsible for poverty reduction, but child poverty is increasing year by year. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, nine health ministers stepped on each other's toes, instead of pursuing an effective, centralized policy. It's crazy, isn't it?

State reforms have led to a federalism of competition where one region is pitted against another. This does not work. The status quo is not an option. It can go in two opposite directions.

One direction is that of the splitting of the country from 2024 onwards, either abruptly or in stages. This is what the right-wing nationalists and separatists want. For fifty years they have been pushing the country towards more and more division. For 2024, they keep two options in reserve:

  • or a direct split with a coup de force by the separatists and the proclamation of independence by an extreme right-wing Flanders;

  • or the establishment of confederalism, as the final step before the split. In this divisive confederalism, all that remains of the federal state becomes an empty shell, with only authority over the national debt, pensions, the army, foreign affairs, the railways and a few other state-owned enterprises. The nationalist N-VA hopes to draw the Socialist Party, which is adopting an increasingly regionalist stance, into this scenario, as well as Vooruit (the Flemish social-democratic party), the CD&V and other parties. Confederalism is the ultimate step towards the complete break-up of the country, and it was designed as such by the separatists.

But it can also go the other way. Thus, the majority of Belgians in the three regions of the country continue to oppose the division of the country. We, along with many others, want to steer the country in this other direction: towards more cooperation and unity, instead of more competition and division. In this way we put an end to confrontation, waste and the politics of "divide and rule". We are in favour of a federalism of unity, social, efficient, human and less costly in our country. For it is in the interest of the working class, the youth and all citizens of our country.

A split would make us weaker

The driving force and financier of the split idea is the aggressive Flemish employers' organisation Voka and the KBC bank. They want to put an end to our strong federal social security and to the strong national trade unions and mutual insurance companies, and to split up social security in order to build a conditional "Flemish security" of its own. It wants to split up labour law and collective agreements in order to strengthen the position of big business. It wants an "own social policy" that is totally subordinated to the competitive position of the new economic elite. It wants trade unions that can still scream a little, but can no longer bite. It is very clear: this separatist project aims to divide the working class. The split is not only about the economy - more deregulation, privatisation and exploitation - but also about ideology, politics and culture: it aims at having a submissive working class that aligns itself with the worldview of the ruling class. An independent or confederal Flanders must, in their eyes, become a reactionary pro-employer region.

An anti-social split

All the employers' organisations are increasingly pressing for a further reduction in social security contributions on our wages. This goes hand in hand with the privatisation of health insurance, care for the elderly and pensions. The result is that everyone is pushed into taking out individual private insurance and that the big insurance companies can enrich themselves at the expense of pensioners, the sick and the elderly.

With the federal social security system, the employers are encountering national resistance to this dismantling. Voka wants to split up social security to break this resistance and partially privatize social security. It would cost the working class dearly. In the first place, Voka is fighting for the complete separation of the health care and the employment policy (with unemployment benefits). It knows that once these cornerstones are removed, the whole building could collapse.

One large social security system is cheaper than two or three small ones, because the costs of management and administration are spread over a larger group of contributors. A split also breaks up the solidarity between the different parts of the country.

What has happened with the competences that have been transferred to the Regions shows very clearly that a structural social policy is not a priority. On the contrary. Just think of the waiting lists for people with disabilities or for social housing.

The solution proposed by the social democratic parties in the government negotiations with the nationalists in 2020 - splitting up the health care and the employment policy, but keeping the social security funding at the federal level - is dangerous. Because with different policies in the regions, the pressure to split up funding also will soon become unmanageable. We will soon hear the well-known song that Flanders "should not pay for the mismanagement by the French-speaking people". No, this is not a solution. It only paves the way for a divisive confederalism, a precursor to the break-up of the country.

A costly split

The split will create a new state apparatus, with its army of politicians and civil servants, its laws and regulations. And this for a very small area. All the economies of scale will be lost, when our country is barely larger than a pea on the world map. Equally expensive will be a divisive confederalism that would lead to massive transfers of competences.

The sixth state reform has been in place for ten years, but it is still not digested. A direct split or divisional confederalism will be a hopeless process that will take at least two generations.

An absurd and brutal split

It is absurd to split the justice and police forces at a time when crime is becoming more complex and international and coordination between security services is already difficult. It is absurd to divide health care in order to combat diseases and pandemics that cross linguistic boundaries without any problem.

Splitting the country is as unrealistic as divisive confederalism. Indeed, in these scenarios, there is not a single viable solution for Brussels, where French-speakers, Dutch-speakers and speakers of many other languages live together, and where a quarter of a million Flemish and 140 000 Walloons come to work every day. Brussels cannot be divided, nor co-managed from the outside, unless we establish an apartheid that would lead to endless conflict, tension and, ultimately, violence.

After the split, the separatists in the north of the country want to impose a narrow identity on the divided regions. An identity that rejects all those who do not fit into the Flemish "canon": the migrant, the Walloon, but also the "passive" sick person, the unemployed or the pensioner, the critical artist, the committed activist. A brutally imposed identity that leads to censorship and a form of authoritarian state.

More unity makes us stronger

Our country is a crossroads in the heart of Europe: industrial, technological and logistic; a country of emigration and immigration.

Every culture is divided between those who want everything to stay the same and those who advocate emancipation and progress. There is no such thing as a single culture or a single tradition. We do not belong to "Daddy's Belgium", the Belgium that made children work in the mines, the Belgium of Leopold II and colonization, of the Société Générale, of collaboration with Nazism and of discrimination, of scheming and corruption.

We stand for our own history, we already said so when we first organized ManiFiesta in 2010 in Bredene at the seaside. Our history is a common history of the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels people. Who founded the first trade unions? Not the Flemish nationalists, but the textile workers of Ghent and Kortrijk. Who brought the spirit of struggle into the labour movement? Not the separatists, but the miners of the Borinage. Who formulated the first demands of the working class? Not the regionalists, but the workers and craftsmen of Brussels. And together - those of Ghent, the Borinage and Brussels - they created the workers' movement that made the emancipation of the working classes a reality and created our identity. It was the labour movement that enforced the ban on child labour and the ban on 12-hour workdays. It introduced paid holidays. It built social security brick by brick. Our grandparents achieved results because they were united and because they dared to lead the struggle.

Today, those who throw oil on the fire say that it is better to separate. That there are too many problems. But these claims come from outsiders, professional separatists who have done nothing at all for social security. Why should we now let them tear down this social security?

In view of 2024, we need more unity. Faced with multinationals that cross all national borders, it is important for the working class to be internationalist, and therefore anti-nationalist.

By strengthening unity in Belgium, we are building the unity of the working class beyond national borders. This is the perspective from which we fight both separatism and regionalism. The establishment has an interest in dividing the working class. In a smaller territory, the working class is weakened. In a smaller area, it is more difficult for workers in Liège, Antwerp and Brussels to learn from each other and to strengthen each other. And it's easier to pit them against each other, to try to stir up prejudices so that they turn inward. History shows that those who are divided cannot win.

We can only win if we succeed in uniting workers, even if they come from different backgrounds, even if they grew up in different places, even if they have different cultural and social traditions. The language we speak is not the language of money and cold selfishness. It is the language of labour and solidarity.

Let's make the federal state the centre of gravity of Belgium

We want to prevent nationalists and regionalists on both sides of the language border from taking decisive steps towards the split. We want to go in the other direction, with measures that run counter to the logic of splitting up of previous state reforms.

In our country, the Federal State, the Communities and the Regions decide alongside each other. Federal laws are on the same level as decrees and ordinances of the Regions or Communities. There is no set standard, no hierarchy. As the coronavirus crisis has shown, this constantly leads to obstacles and blockages.

Any federal state worth its salt has a set of norms, a hierarchy. In Germany, for example, the federal government sets the framework for the individual Länder (regions). It's more efficient, less wasteful and, above all, less conflictual. The federal government must guarantee equality for all inhabitants. It must be empowered to enact laws that guarantee equal living conditions throughout the country, with equal rights for all.

The federal government provides the framework and sets the guidelines and standards in key areas. This is essential to ensure the coherence of the major public investment plans that are needed to meet the social and climate challenges and to combat inequalities in development between the regions.

We want to re-federalise and bring back to the national level the policies on health, climate, mobility and energy, but also on the policies on economy, employment, digital and public investment. We want a fully-fledged federal social security system. And a more solidarity-based financing law.

For our country, this is a fundamental change. The centre of gravity of the political decision must return to the federal level. The implementation of the latter and the concrete applications adapted to the realities on the ground will be carried out by the Regions.

From this point of view, the law of the federal state must take precedence over the law of the regions, as in Germany. When the interests of the regions threaten to block the country, we need an arbiter who can cut the knot. Only the federal government can take on this task.

This must go hand in hand with a simplification of structures. We want to delimit the Regions on the basis of the following criteria: economic relations, social relations and linguistic composition. Inhabitants derive their rights from the fact that they live in a particular Region, not from the fact that they belong to a particular linguistic community.

In our country, we lack unifying political mechanisms. For example, we need a federal constituency for national elections so that representatives are elected by the whole population, not just by the inhabitants of a Region. The ministers of the federal state act for the whole country and should be responsible for their policies to all the voters of the country.

We defend a federalism of social unity, efficient, humane and less expensive.

More unity is social

The federal level is best placed to organize the redistribution of wealth: with fair taxation, strong social security and strong public services. The one that splits everything up gets more competition between the regions and a dismantling of what is essential.

In insurance, it is known that risks are better covered when the group of contributors is larger. The same applies to social security with pensions, unemployment insurance, sickness and disability insurance and occupational injury insurance. In addition, the unity of social security at the federal level, with a single administration, offers the best value for money and guarantees the public character of this system and its financing.

The biggest part of the taxes must be collected at the federal level. But these revenues must be redistributed to the different levels of power according to a distribution key that meets the needs. As in other federal countries, redistribution mechanisms must reduce the gap between the richest and poorest regions and ensure that all citizens have access to comparable public services.

More unity is cheaper and more efficient

Belgium's surface area is smaller than that of most German Länder. London has more inhabitants than Belgium and has only one local council and one mayor. So it could be much simpler and less expensive than it is today. We can reduce the number of ministers and secretaries of state by more than a third.

We want to re-federalise those competences where regionalisation has proven to be a failure. Only those competences for which regionalisation really represents an added value in terms of democracy and efficiency will be taken over by the Regions.

Brussels, the capital, is at the crossroads of the country. The city is a bilingual region in itself. Brussels is part of the solution. For the challenges that go beyond the Brussels Region but are linked to Brussels' role as a federal capital, it is the federal state which provides the main guidelines. The federal government will ensure the protection of the Dutch- and French-speaking minorities in the capital and the surrounding area.

More unity is human

Why lock people into a narrow Flemish or Walloon identity? The multilingual nature of our country is an asset in today's Europe. The intersection of Latin and Germanic influences has characterized our country and continues to do so. This is an integral part of our Belgian identity. This identity cannot be amputated without impoverishing it. An amputation is brutal. We stand for a united, multilingual Belgium with a federalism of unity that could serve as an example for a multilingual Europe.

* Rue de la Loi (Wetstraat) is the place where the federal government has its office.

Share via social media