Is Belgium the test-bench for democracy 2.0?

Surreal rearguard state or foretaste of problems yet to come? David Van Reybrouck predicts that the underlying causes of Belgium’s political crisis will repeat themselves throughout Europe as the new media call into question established democratic practices.

Francesca Spinelli: Ian Buruma recently published an article in the The New Yorker about Belgium, entitled “Le Divorce”. Was the feeling of alarm that one gets from the article justified, in your opinion?

David Van Reybrouck: I liked the article very much. I thought it was a very acute analysis of what is happening at the moment. I also said to Buruma, when we had lunch together recently, that the conclusion, with its reference to the defeat of Waterloo, was a bit pessimistic. But, that’s just journalistic hyperbole.

FS: Isn’t the article rather unbalanced in favour of the Flemish point of view?

DVR: For the first time, there is someone writing in the international press who is able to address Dutch speakers. In Brussels there are lots of foreign journalists who only speak English and French and so their documentary sources end up being rather one-sided. Buruma’s article is a way of correcting a widespread tendency in the international press to depict the Flemish as an arrogant community, too turned in upon itself. And whilst I don’t subscribe to some aspects of the Flemish movement, I do feel a certain frustration when I see Belgium being depicted as a surrealist little country famous for chocolates, beer and waffles, this surreal view culminating in a picture of Flemings as being, without exception, extremists and separatists. As in an account of any conflict, you end up by caricaturing people’s positions. I have problems with that. The percentage of Belgians who really want separation is very small and for the last 15 years has remained at somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent; despite all the crises, it is not increasing.

FS: Ian Buruma provides a fairly extensive portrait of Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish successionist party Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie. You know him personally.

DVR: Yes, we were at university together for years.

FS: Reading your column in the daily Le Soir, one gets the impression that you have mixed feelings about the leader of the NVA. On the one hand, you criticize those who call him a fascist because that makes it impossible to understand him and to understand those who vote for him; on the other hand, you say that he doesn’t have the general wellbeing of the Flemings in mind.

DVR: I don’t like the caricatures that people put forward of Bart De Wever – fascist, extreme rightwing, etc. He’s a democrat, but a democrat who wants to put an end to a kind of democracy that he sees as being too weak. My position is different: you don’t cut a country into two just because there is a problem with democracy. There are other solutions. De Wever wants to put an end to a democracy through democratic means. And if the discussion is stagnating, that’s the reason why. But his arguments are legitimate. If we are prepared to recognize the independence of Kosovo and Southern Sudan, that’s because there’s an international consensus about the possibility of a split; it’s not some kind of crime that’s infringing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We’re not going to solve the Belgian problem – and it’s a serious problem – by demonizing someone who has a legitimate manifesto. That was why I liked Buruma’s article: because he went beyond the caricature.

FS: Buruma claims that De Wever is quite different from the other European populist politicians.

DVR: It’s true that he’s no Jörg Haider, Geert Wilders or Silvio Berlusconi. He doesn’t fit the stereotypes of present-day European populist leaders. He’s a nationalist who is neither opposed to the European Union nor to Islam. He represents a new phenomenon. And, as I wrote in Le Soir, it’s thanks to him that the popularity of the extreme Right and its xenophobic ideas has diminished. He’s quite unique in Europe.

FS: You also say that he is following a specific strategy because he knows that he has to seize this chance to “take his place in history”.

DVR: De Wever is very young but, at the same time, he’s already old in political terms. Nowadays, because debates happen so quickly, because citizens are so involved, thanks to Web 2.0, the length of a political career has become much shorter. I would say that you only have five years, unless you can manage to set up some sort of crypto-dictatorship like Berlusconi and no longer play the game according to democratic rules. But if you do play according to these rules then you have a rather early expiry date. And Bart De Wever is well aware that in ten years he will no longer be on the political scene in the way that he is today. He has this one chance and now is the time to achieve something. Indeed, there are some people who say that he’s already fed up with the current situation and is thinking about becoming burgomaster of Antwerp, because federal politics are beginning to wear him out. And he’s not the only one: everyone has had enough of it, politicians and citizens alike.

FS: You referred to the serious problems that Belgium has to solve. What are they caused by? Almost nobody wants separation; the politicians have had enough of the present situation, the citizens too… So why is nothing changing?

DVR: There are two reasons: an institutional and constitutional problem that is peculiar to Belgium, and a much larger problem that has to do with democracy. Let’s start with the former: over the last 40 years Belgium has undergone a series of governmental reforms that have transformed a unitary state into a federal state, with an increasing transfer of powers to regions and communities. Along the way, a serious institutional and constitutional restriction has taken shape: a Fleming cannot vote for a Walloon and vice-versa (unless you live in Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde, the only constituency where you can vote for politicians from both communities). This means that a politician can win federal elections by playing the regionalist card. But afterwards he still has to come to an agreement at the federal level with people who are not at all in agreement with what he has promised to his electors. And that causes paralysis. This is a serious constraint imposed by Belgian electoral law. De Wever has always said: Belgium is not a democracy; it is two halves of a democracy. His solution is to make them two separate, fully-fledged democracies. The statement of the problem is correct, but there are other ways to cure it. You don’t demolish the house because a tap is dripping!

FS: And what is the second reason for this crisis in Belgian politics?

DVR: It is the enormous change that new media have brought to professional politics: the involvement of citizens has become significantly more important. Every step a politician takes, every negotiation he is involved in, finds its way into the press immediately. Previously, discretion could sometimes be effective for months: politicians would get together and thrash out a compromise that they could all live with. Then they went and defended the compromise before their party and their electors. Now, every move they make is immediately a political fact. Politicians do not talk to each other any more – they have not been talking to each other in Belgium for months – but they talk to their voters all the time. They are, as it were, paralysed by the public, whose influence is becoming more and more evident.

FS: So, democracy is undergoing major change?

DVR: Yes, most certainly. The public today can follow the political process from one moment to the next but is only asked to give its opinion every four years. This is completely new. I think that we are approaching the end of representative democracy. The idea that elections are key moments no longer holds water, and you can see that everywhere. I am just reading The Life and Death of Democracy by John Keane, and I entirely agree with his conclusions. Belgium, in my view, does not represent the surreal rearguard of European states. I think that what we are seeing here, a little earlier than elsewhere, the same challenges as people will have to face everywhere. The Belgian problem – linked with the country’s constitution – is actually part of a much larger problem that could be summed up by asking the following question: what will democracy 2.0 be like?

FS: Let’s return to the subject of Flanders. You have often addressed the question of the role of Flemish artists and intellectuals. On the one hand, you oppose the fact that, as soon as an intellectual dares to hold a different view on nationalism, he is accused of treason; on the other you stress that a gulf has opened up between intellectuals and the people, or at least, what used to be called “the people”.

DVR: I don’t feel comfortable with the dominant response in Flemish intellectual circles to this kind of criticism from those with autonomist tendencies, namely that the latter lack “solidarity”. They try to use the same strategy as they did in the Nineties to counter the success of the extreme Right, when they tried to put the celebrated cordon sanitaire around the Vlaams Blok. But at that time we were dealing with a party condemned as racist, whereas now we are talking about a democratic party. To treat NVA members and sympathisers as people lacking in solidarity seems questionable to me. It means that you are refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the votes of the 28 per cent of Flemings who voted for De Wever. This kind of adversarial discourse from an intellectual class that considers itself to be rational and cosmopolitan alienates it from the citizens… and there is the problem; it lies in the kind of rootless cosmopolitanism that nurses a deep scorn for the Flemish-speaking community’s need for social and regional roots. I find that kind of cosmopolitanism just as provincialist as Flemish separatism. It’s just one more tribe, with its own values, a tribe that appears to fail to see that it occupies a privileged position.

FS: This is precisely the argument that you put forward in your pamphlet Pleidooi voor populisme (“A plea for populism”).

DVR: Yes. I claim that we won’t win the fight against populism by stigmatising those who vote for populist parties. We know that populist parties are more popular amongst the less educated classes. Cosmopolitanism, however, has become the preferred stance of the educated Left. Think about the development of social democracy in western Europe. It began as a struggle for the emancipation of the poor, of those who had no education, workers, the destitute. But it has become the position of the elite, of persons of culture, who drink their Chardonnay, are able to travel and, what is more, despise the lower classes. I consider that to be incredibly vulgar. On the Left it is easier to feel solidarity with a poor worker in a mine than with the grandchild of that same miner who, thanks to the struggles of socialists, has been able to climb the social ladder and can afford to go on holiday to Turkey or the Costa Brava, but who didn’t turn out to be the cosmopolitan that we had hoped for. As long as they are poor they are respected, but as soon as they are better off and try to defend what they’ve got, they are pushed aside. Well, no! The social struggle is not over! Raising socio-economic levels is all very well, but there remains the task of intellectual training. The reality is that the class that could engage with this task, instead of sharing its riches and its learning, turns its back. It’s simultaneously absolutist with regard to its ideals and its values, imbued with post-modern relativism, and paralysed when it comes to sharing, to stretching forth its hand.

FS: And it adopts this attitude, not only with the grandchildren of miners, but with immigrants too.

DVR: It is prepared to be concerned about immigrants as long as they are poverty-stricken, but behind this there is that same respectful relativism. But not interfering is not the only kind of respect. Inviting people to share is also a form of respect. If everyone keeps their door closed then the public space becomes fragmented into watertight compartments.

FS: The success of your most recent book, Congo (“Congo: A history”) shows that reaching a wider public is possible.

DVR: Yes… Two hundred thousand copies sold in nine months, and it’s a volume of 700 pages that makes no concessions to the general public. That confirms my view that it’s possible to speak seriously to a wider public. Congo is read by former colonials as well as by young people in the Congolese diaspora. I never expected it to be such a success. In Pleidooi voor populisme I claimed that a different kind of cultural discourse is possible, and then I wrote a play, Mission, and a book, Congo, which did indeed attract a wider public. You might think that I had been following a deliberate strategy but it’s not the case. If I do have a strategy, it is to see the legitimacy of different points of view. It’s the same challenge as Camus speaks of: seeing humanity from other angles. That’s all I’m doing and that’s the only motive that drives me.

Published 10 March 2011
Original in French
Translated by Mike Routledge
First published by, 22 February 2011 (French version); Eurozine (English version)

© David Van Reybrouck / / Eurozine


Read in: EN / FR / HU

Share article


Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: Why Parliaments?

The original assembly in 12th century Spain was not a space for popular democracy, but for tough bargaining and long distance government. After 800 years of evolution and facing civilizational challenges, parliaments need to further transform to meet the moment and deliver on the promise of inclusion. Can watchdog parliaments gather enough steam to effectively restrain those in power?