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Let’s govern Belgium on the basis of its nine provinces

An opinion of Steven Arrazola de Oñate and Bruno Yammine, respectively member of the Open VLD and historian.

Due to the structures of federal Belgium, it is very difficult to face crises effectively. For those who know the incredible complexity of our institutions, this is hardly surprising. The approach to the current pandemic demonstrates this once again. Just think of the handling of the coronavirus crisis, when the new virus was spreading in nursing homes a year ago.

The scattered vaccination policy

Curative health care is primarily a federal matter with the exception, among others, of residential geriatrics. While preventive health care is mostly provided at the community level. However, the exceptions to this rule make the matter complex. In fact, the vaccination policy is scattered over different levels of power: the federal state, the communities and the regions. Unfortunately, we lack unity of command. Thus, the Belgian State is competent for the authorization of vaccines on the market, quality control, the vaccination schedule and compulsory vaccinations.

The Communities, the Walloon Region in part, as well as the Common Community Commission (Cocom) are responsible for vaccination campaigns. Reimbursements for vaccination campaigns are the responsibility of the Communities, while reimbursements for individual vaccinations (which can be obtained from pharmacies) fall under the competence of Inami at national level.

Who can enumerate the positive effects of this surreal situation for the health of Belgians?

The opacity of the Consultation Committee

Given that so many actors are involved in the management of the same subject and that the competences overlap or influence different levels of power, attempts are made in Belgium to rationalize the policy somewhat through the Concertation Committee. In addition to the federal government, the governments of the Communities and Regions are represented there. In the absence of a “corona law”, federal policy is guided by ministerial orders. On paper, these decrees result from a decision of the Federal Public Service (SPF) of the Interior and therefore of the competent federal minister. In practice, this minister implements what was decided in the consultation committee.

The fact that the federated entities are involved in the policy to be developed and implemented leads to bizarre situations. Thus, these entities will suddenly – and for lack of consensus – strengthen the federal curfew (24 h to 5 h). However, only Cities and Provinces can make such a decision. This is why it seems to us that the curfew violates the Belgian Constitution twice. Indeed, although the protection of health is a constitutional right (art. 23, 2 ° Belgian Const.), The Constitution does not recognize an emergency situation. It emerges that from a constitutional point of view, the implementation of a curfew is therefore very questionable. What is more, this measure is all the more unconstitutional when it is introduced by the Regions which are not competent in the matter.

Assessment of the current system

More fundamentally, the existence and functioning of a Consultative Committee which intervenes so deeply in the daily life of Belgians is in contradiction with the customs of a rule of law. The first reason is that it is a triumph of the “dictatorship of executive powers”. Indeed, its decisions cannot be challenged by a (federal) parliament. Second, there is no hierarchically superior federal government in place which can decide, in the event of disagreement, or which has the power to take the place of the federated entities during a crisis.

In addition, it goes against the fact that we have been, since March 2020, in the “federal phase” of crisis management and the fact that by virtue of the law itself, there is only the federal government which is responsible for the fight against pandemics. Thus, the parliamentary legislative document 5-2232 / 1 of July 25, 2013 concerning the sixth state reform states, without ambiguity, that “the federal authority also remains competent for crisis policy in the event that an acute pandemic would require urgent measures “.

It is therefore not a coordination function at the federal level with regard to the federated entities, but an exclusive competence.

Within the National Security Council (CNS), the primacy of the federal level was guaranteed. It was in fact a purely federal body in which the representatives of the federated entities had only an advisory role.

In addition, the decision-making process in a consultation committee takes place behind closed doors. This is contrary to the functioning of a normal parliamentary democracy in which parliamentarians (including the opposition) participate in the decision-making process, while the press is present.

Federalism therefore hinders communication between politicians and citizens. It should be noted that when a Consultative Committee meets, the spokespersons of each level of power put forward their wishes which are sometimes opposed, regardless of their competence in the matter. Thus, the Flemish, Walloon or Brussels Minister-Presidents have no say in closing borders for non-essential travel. However, they each give their opinion on this subject when the Consultative Committee meets.

Add to this the troubled communication resulting from the time invested in the prior consultation. Are not anti-political resentments growing within a population that has already suffered a lot during this exasperating crisis?

Unitarianism, bearer of the future

Politicians are prisoners of structures which they themselves maintain, paradoxically. Regions and Communities are completely superfluous levels of power, which becomes painfully obvious in times of crisis. In order for the different levels of power to be involved in the governance of the country, parliamentary democracy is even limited, to a certain extent, by opaque advisory committees.

If Belgium were governed on the basis of the nine historic provinces, with a single government and a single parliament, this mismanagement would no longer exist. Replacing the current federated entities by the Provinces would also be a minor administrative intervention, certainly in comparison with a separatist (or confederalist) adventure that some want.

Unitarianism is not at all old-fashioned (otherwise the N-VA and the VB would be the most progressive parties in Belgium, which is certainly not the case!) But on the contrary, it has a promising future.

However, as long as we continue to become entangled with a political system in which certain political structures sometimes seem more important than the well-being of the people, the citizen will continue to be the victim of the politics that are supposed to serve them.

>>> Title and chapô are editorial. Original title: “What the coronavirus crisis tells us about Belgian federalism”

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