Belgian Federalism and Foreign Relations: Between Cooperation and Pragmatism

Belgian Federalism and
Foreign Relations:
Between Cooperation and Pragmatism
The Belgian federation is a very special one, not in the least with respect
to the organization of its foreign relations. The underlying theme of
Belgian federalism is based upon a tension between the constitutional provisions
on the one hand and the practical organization of foreign policy
making on the other.
Belgium evolved from a unitary state into a full-fledged federal country
in a 30-year period, from about 1960 to 1993. However, while the federal
constitution of 1993 was an important landmark, the Belgian people continue
to witness an ongoing debate over further refinements to the federal
architecture. Nevertheless, Belgium’s constitutional foundations are laid
down. They consist of a federal level and a double federated level of three
Communities – the French Community, the Flemish Community and the
German-speaking Community, as well as three Regions – the Flemish
Region, the Walloon Region and the Brussels Capital Region, which has a
special status. The double subnational level reflects the cultural heterogeneity
of the Belgian population and the economic diversity of the
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Belgium 19
Belgian territory. The communities are responsible for policies such as
education, culture, media, language and preventive health care. The
regions have responsibility for policies such as transport, industrial policy,
employment, spatial and structural planning, environment, agriculture
and trade policy. The federal level remains in charge of policy fields such
as social security, justice, home affairs issues and defense.
Belgian federalism is a variant of legislative federalism, meaning that the
governing authority with legislative authority over a given field also has the
administrative authority over those matters. The federal constitution, rather
than being based on the principle of hierarchy, provides that federal and
regional laws have equivalent status. This absence of a hierarchy also has
major implications for the way the Belgian federation complies with internationally
binding agreements and regulations, and means that each
authority has to draft and implement the international policies that fall
within its jurisdiction. As a result of the absence of a hierarchy, the constitution
gives the various constituent units the power to conduct foreign policies
with respect to the specific competencies that fall within their jurisdiction.
This is known as the in foro interno, in foro externo principle.
Aside from the international context, having constituent units conduct
autonomous foreign policies does not raise many problems in the area
of exclusive powers. Foreign aspects of education policy, for instance, are
separately managed by the three communities, both in terms of foreign
representation and in terms of concluding treaties. The Belgian constitution,
however, separates responsibilities for many policies, making different
constituent units responsible for different aspects of a single policy.
European environmental directives, for example, affect the powers of the
three regions and the federal level at the same time. These mixed competencies
provide a first important contextual framework for the practical
organization of foreign relations within the Belgian federation.
The second determining factor is the international context. While the
sheer number and the activities of regional entities on the international
scene are growing every day, unitary states and multilateral organizations and
entities still predominantly base their policies and organization on the longstanding
model of unitary nation states. However, the extensive foreign relations
powers of the Belgian regions and communities place foreign partners
in a quandary. Foreign bodies are inclined to look to the Belgian national
government as their primary interlocutor. Thus the international dimensions
of relations between Belgium’s constituent units and foreign bodies are a
second important contextual factor to consider in Belgium’s federal system.
However, both the domestic characteristics of Belgian federalism and
international practices have had the effect of softening the constitutional
principles of Belgian foreign relations. In essence, an evolution has
occurred, going from a dual competitive form of federalism towards a variant
of cooperative federalism, combined with a large dose of pragmatism.
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20 Françoise Massart-Piérard / Peter Bursens
Cooperation among the federated units and between the constituent units
and the federal authority is fundamentally important in the case of concurrent
jurisdiction and classic multilateral organizations. This is particularly
the case with respect to Belgium’s dealings with the European Union,
which cover a large variety of policy fields. As a result, extensive coordinating
mechanisms have been established to avoid confusion and ensure
that one single negotiator defends one single position internationally.
Although the coordination mechanisms sometimes involve very detailed
rules of procedure, pragmatism remains an essential feature of Belgian foreign
policies. This pragmatism has come about because federalism was embraced
in Belgium as a mechanism to ensure that the interests of all partners are
optimally served. To achieve this goal, all partners learned to approach
foreign relations in a pragmatic fashion. It has
been found that the successful international representation
of Belgian constituent units’ interests
require that all the affected units participate whenever
necessary. But it also means that when the
international partners or multilateral organizations
insist upon a single Belgian position or representative,
then the country’s domestic partners need to
understand that a flexible approach, compromise
and the willingness to mandate a Belgian representative
brings about the most fruitful outcomes.
Finally, this cooperative and pragmatic attitude
has resulted in a good understanding among the
federated units. They determined that mutual antagonism
serves only to decrease the likelihood of their success on the international
stage. Instead, cooperation with the federal government yields much
more, because it allows for the optimal use of its diplomatic expertise and
its foreign networks. In a sense this understanding has shifted domestic
conflicts away from the linguistic cleavage between Flanders and Wallonia
to one in which the cleavage is systemic, between constituent units and the
federal government. The cleavage between the federal government and
the constituent units becomes especially apparent in foreign relations.
It is clear that Belgian federalism has unique institutional features which
its foreign partners find difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the realities
of the country’s external environment constitute a significant factor in the
gradual shaping of a cooperative and pragmatic approach to the organization
of foreign relations by the constituent units and the federal government,
and thus the overall Belgian federation. Despite the existence of
constitutional provisions and detailed coordination mechanisms, a flexible,
pragmatic and informal approach has become a crucial element in
Belgian foreign policy. This can only function effectively when the constituent
units support the federal system of government.
Cooperation among
the federated units
and between the
constituent units
and the federal
authority is fundamentally
in the case of concurrent
and classic multilateral
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