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Devolution in Belgium

Devolution in Belgium

Imagine you are a Dutch speaker living in the Belgian region of Flanders and you share a country with French speakers who live in a different region. You both share the country of Belgium, yet you barely ever interact with French speakers. You read Dutch media, watch Dutch television, and vote for Dutch-speaking politicians. Every time you enter Brussels, you are surprised to read signs in both Dutch and French.

This linguistic divide describes life in Belgium. Belgium is a small federal state in Western Europe located to the south of the Netherlands, north of France, and west of Germany and Luxembourg. Home to two regions that speak different languages and laws, Belgium is a test case for whether the European Union can integrate different cultures under one unified government. So far, the experience has been quite rocky.

Devolution in Belgium Locator Map of Belgium StudySmarterFig. 1 - Belgium's location on Earth and in Europe

Devolution Definition

Devolution is a form of decentralization in federal states.

Devolution: the political process in which subdivisions are granted autonomy and functional powers on a provincial basis.

Thus, due to devolution, a federal national government will delegate duties and powers to a lower level of government. An example can include delegating the responsibility of administering the education system to a regional authority.

Devolution in Belgium Examples

Belgium has experienced a complex process of devolution because it is home to three distinct language communities that wish to self-govern. How did this happen?

History of Belgium

It is important to know Belgium's history to understand its present complications.

The modern territory of Belgium has throughout its history been a part of a larger empire or has been fragmented into multiple states. Due to its history, it is known as the crossroads of Europe. It is also known as the battlefield of Europe, due to its strategic location and historic battles during World War I and World War II.

Belgium began due to the Belgian Revolution in 1830 August. Following the performance of a famous French opera that riled up nationalist fervor, the revolution began. Leading the revolution were French-speaking Walloons who disliked the Netherlands' king and felt ostracized by the Dutch language and its ruling class. This revolution was successful in establishing an independent Belgian kingdom. A new King was chosen, and a new constitution was written. In the constitution, voting rights were limited to only rich French speakers, which is problematic for a country in which Dutch was the predominant language.

Devolution in Belgium Wappers Painting of Belgian Revolution StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Belgian Revolution, as depicted in a famous painting by Flemish painter Gustaaf Wappers

Three Regions, Three Communities, One State

Belgium is a federal state with two self-governing states inside. These self-governing states are not officially states, but regions. The major regions include the Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. There is a third region, the Brussels-Capital Region, which is officially bilingual.

At the state level, with its capital in Brussels, Belgium has two parliaments, a judicial branch, and an executive branch.

At the regional level, Flanders and Wallonia function independently because they have their own official languages, unicameral legislatures, universities, and media. To make it even more complicated, the regions are further split into provinces.

Devolution in Belgium Map of Flanders StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Dutch-speaking community of Belgium, known as the region, Flanders

Flanders is the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, and it is located in northern Belgium, bordering the Netherlands.

Devolution in Belgium Map of Wallonia StudySmarterFig. 4 - This map depicts the french-speaking community of Belgium, known as the region of Wallonia

Wallonia, located in the south of Belgium, alongside the borders with France, Luxembourg, and Germany, is the French-speaking region.

Devolution in Belgium Map of German-speaking Community StudySmarterFig. 5 - The German-speaking community of Belgium. They do not have a region of their own but instead are part of Wallonia

In addition to Dutch and French-speaking communities, there is also a community of German speakers in East Belgium. Though the German speakers do not have a region of their own, they do have their own government and parliament.

Cause of Devolution in Belgium

Even with three regions and three language communities, Belgium has remained intact.

Linguistic Disputes History

Language matters. Not being able to communicate with citizens or neighbors creates difficulties for governing. Thus, linguistic disputes have been common in Belgium.

Following the Belgian Revolution, when Belgium gained independence from the Dutch-speaking Netherlands, French was made the official language of the country, even though there were millions of Dutch speakers in the state. French, instead of Dutch, was used in all government matters, including the justice system and laws.

When occupying Belgium during WWII, Nazi Germany exploited the linguistic conflict in Belgium. The Germans promised Flanders an independent nation within the German Empire, which was alluring to some Flemish. Yet, Flanders and Wallonia remained unified once occupation had ended.

Devolution in Belgium Potentials

With its different languages and community, it is difficult for a federal state to maintain control over the territory. Thus, devolution is beneficial in delegating control to a regional government.

Belgium's Struggle

Belgium's government is unstable. Some of Belgium's most populous political parties are anti-Belgium. Militant proponents of Flemish Nationalism seek to separate from Wallonia and form an independent, sovereign state. Others propose merging Dutch-speaking Flanders with the Dutch-speaking country of the Netherlands, located on its northern border.


The parliament of Belgium has struggled to create a governing coalition multiple times.

From 2007 to 2011, there was a severe crisis in the federal government of Belgium. There were many threats of secession of Flanders from Belgium during this time. The linguistic ambiguity of the capital region was contentious. During this period, there was a 541-day time frame when Belgium was unable to form a government. Less than a decade later, from 2019 into 2020, Belgium yet again did not have an official government for over 650 days as there was a struggle to create a coalition among the various parties.

Regional Differences


While language is the core difference between the regions, as a result of their autonomy, there are numerous other differences. For instance, Flanders is significantly richer than Wallonia. The French-speaking region is worse off in relation to GDP, employment, and debt.

There are also major political differences between the regions. Flanders is Catholic and conservative, while Wallonia is socialist-leaning.

Due to these differences, there are few areas in which the Flemish and Walloons agree. This is a reason why the federal government of Belgium struggles to govern the entire territory.

Devolution in Belgium Process

Due to these regional differences, there was undoubtedly a need for devolution.

Creation of Regions

In 1962, a linguistic border was drawn across Belgium. Wallonia was designated French-speaking and Flanders was designated Dutch-speaking. The capital, Brussels, was considered a bilingual region. While there may be French speakers in Flanders and Dutch speakers in Wallonia, the linguistic border generally created regions based on the corresponding language community.

Governments and businesses are not required to function in a language that is not the official administrative language.

After this point, the government functioned in the region's language. To deal with this discrepancy, areas that do not have a clear majority must have language facilities where government services will be offered in both languages. However, division based on only language was unsatisfactory in terms of devolution.

In 1971, Flanders and Wallonia were granted cultural autonomy by the federal government. Soon after, autonomy was also extended to the economy and education. With regions administering themselves in these important legislative areas, in the 1990s, the continued existence of federal Belgium was questioned.

For more information on the principle of territoriality, check out StudySmarter's explanation of territoriality.

Devolution in Belgium Facts

Brussels is an anomaly in Belgium, as it is officially bilingual. Even though it is surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders, Brussels and the surrounding capital region embraced French as a result of the Belgian elite speaking French. Since Brussels is the only bilingual region of Belgium, it offers an alternative to the linguistic disputes between Flanders and Wallonia.

However, even establishing this bilingual city was difficult because the Flemish were fearful that Dutch would lose out to French dominance.

The Flemish were right because the population of Dutch speakers is decreasing in Brussels. Compared to French speakers, Dutch speakers are on average older, which means the youth is not learning Dutch at the same rate. While Brussels is officially bilingual, French is the lingua franca of the city.

Devolution in Belgium Brussels Bilingual Street Sign StudySmarterFig. 6 - A street sign in Brussels features the region's two official languages: Dutch and French

Brussels as a Symbol

While Brussels is not the de jure capital of the European Union, it is the de facto one. The EU does not have an official capital, but Brussels hosts most of the EU's institutions. It hosts the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council, for example. As a result, Belgium is home to tens of thousands of people who work for the EU's institutions.

Devolution in Belgium Brussels European Commission Building StudySmarterFig. 7 - Brussels' European Quarter is home to the headquarters of many European Union institutions, such as the European Commission

The choice of Brussels as the "capital" of the European Union is symbolic because Belgium has been the "crossroads" and "battlefield of Europe." It is also the capital city of a country that has unified two different regions and languages under one government. Brussels has proven that Europe is a continent in which differences can be resolved and peace can exist.

Belgium is seen as emblematic of what Europe can be.

Devolution in Belgium - Key takeaways

  • Belgium has three language communities: Dutch, French, and German.
  • Flanders is the Dutch-speaking region and Wallonia is the French-speaking region.
  • Devolution involves a federal state delegating powers to a regional government, which is the case for Belgium. Flanders and Wallonia have gained control over their economy and laws. They function as almost their own countries with their own legislatures and governments.
  • As a result of the division within Belgium, there is a frequent struggle to form a unified federal government.
  • Brussels is officially a bilingual area. It also serves as the de facto capital of the European Union, which is a symbolic choice due to Belgium's past and its current division.

References

  1. Fig. 7 - European Commission Headquarters in Brussels (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Belgique_-_Bruxelles_-_Schuman_-_Berlaymont_-_01.jpg) by EmDee licensed by CC-BY SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Devolution in Belgium

Belgium does have devolution. Its regions have high levels of autonomy in managing their own affairs.

Belgium is an example of devolution because of its regions of Flanders and Wallonia which have their own official languages and governments.

Devolution in Belgium involves granting its regions high levels of autonomy to manage their own affairs based on language and cultural differences.

There is no one historical figure in Belgium's devolution. Instead, it has been an ongoing process as the regions have gotten more autonomy throughout the past decades.

Belgium is divided into three regions due to linguistic differences. Flanders speaks Dutch, Wallonia speaks French, and the Brussels-Capital Region is officially bilingual.

Final Devolution in Belgium Quiz

Question

Dutch and French are each an official language of a region of Belgium. 

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Answer

True.

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Question

How is Brussels a linguistic anomaly in Belgium?

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Answer

It is officially bilingual.

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Question

What is the language spoken by the Flemish of Flanders?

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Answer

Dutch

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Question

What were the reasons for the Belgian revolution?

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Answer

Dislike of the Netherlands' king.

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Question

 Flanders administering its own economy is an example of devolution. 

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Answer

True.

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Question

Which of the following is not a language community within Belgium?

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Answer

English.

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Question

Belgium has stable governance.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Which is the wealthier Belgian region?

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Answer

Flanders.

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Question

What best describes Belgium?

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Answer

Unitary state.

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