When the terrorist attacks on Brussels occurred last month, pundits and journalists used the tragedy to reinforce the false narrative that Belgium is a failed state, attributing Belgium’s security breach to the nation’s highly federalized government structure. This misplaced blame has resulted in international pressure to centralize more power with the national government in order to improve Belgium’s security, economy and overall well-being. What this narrative fails to recognize is Belgium’s success as a federalized society, the pitfalls of a unitary state and the overall effectiveness of limited government.
The first article of the Belgian constitution reads, “Belgium is a federal state composed of communities and regions,” designed to produce the most effective and efficient government possible. Communities are formed around the three major languages spoken in Belgium, but also around the culture these languages create. Belgium exploits its cultural variety as an asset giving a voice to individuals who might be overlooked in countries emphasizing greater homogeneity. A geographical divide mirrors the cultural one between Flanders and Wallonia, which have economic differences and other unique factors as well. The Flemish predominantly speak Flemish (a Dutch dialect) and the Walloons speak French. Both capitalize on their geography to act as distribution hubs and hosts to the European headquarters of many multinational firms. In the past, Wallonia relied on steel and coal manufacturing, but with lower taxes bringing an influx of pharmaceutical manufacturers among other industries, it stands a chance to catch up to Flanders’ per capita GDP, the second highest in Europe. The federated state produces a more prosperous living environment for these communities and regions. Flanders itself is one of the richest parts of Europe, and tertiary educational levels among the residents of Wallonia and Flanders outstrip the EU average.
Belgian federalism is not the reason that the country experienced this security failure, as it ensures overall governmental efficiency, including in the security apparatus. In fact, Federated, Devolved or Microstates (FDMs), like Belgium, that value local control and limited government dominate every leading indicator of successful, free and prosperous societies.
Belgium is one of the world’s least corrupt countries, coming in at 15th in the Corruption Perception Index. Of the least corrupt 20 nations, Sweden is the only one that is not considered an FDM.
Belgium is highly integrated into the global economy, coming in fourth in Dalsey, Hillblom & Lynn’s (DHL) Global Connectedness Index – 80 percent of the top 20 most connected countries are FDMs.
Belgium is ranked 13th in the world for freedom of the press – well above the United States’ 41st ranking.
On The Human Freedom Index, Belgium is 22nd, just behind the United States at 20. Sixty percent of the leading 20 freest countries are FDMs.
Highly Federalized States are in general successful, prosperous, peaceful and free.
To be fair, Belgium, like any country, does have shortcomings. After the Brussels attacks, the Belgian government response included official resignations and the development and adoption of overdue legislation. Belgium should consolidate its security forces and improve communication between them. However, leaders can take these measures without sacrificing Belgium’s federalist approach to government.
Belgium has a modern diverse economy, an open and tolerant society, and is a strong ally of the United States of America. While Belgium may need to improve coordination between police units it does not need something akin to America’s Patriot Act that restricts civil rights and consolidates power in the central government. Those who bomb airports and murder civilians are the problem. Pluralism, tolerance and a free society are the solution.