Belgium: an unlikely role model for Britain?

by Elias Blum

No-one cares about Belgium. It is often said that the most famous Belgians – TinTin and Poirot – are fictional characters. Brussels has the name of an unpopular winter vegetable and a bad reputation as the centre of faceless grey European bureaucracy. It is too far south for Northern efficiency, too far north for southern charm.

But I’ve always had a certain liking for the place. Anywhere with good steak-frites and good beer is ok by me. I like the slightly surreal humour. I like how it sits on the borderline between the two great cultures of Western Europe, the Gallic and the Germanic, and in many ways takes the best of both.

And, of course, the Belgian Constitution is very interesting.

For the most part, it’s straightforward European parliamentary democracy: proportional representation, a figurehead monarchy, and asymmetric bicameralism. But the most novel – and, as far as I know, unique – feature of the Belgian model is a complex, overlapping, two-layered, system of federalism with both ‘regions’ (which are geographic) and ‘communities’ (which are culturo-linguistic).

Anyone who would suggest that Britain should be more like Belgium would risk ridicule, but such ridicule would perhaps be misplaced. The ‘Belgian model’ might offer a way forward for a confused and disunited Kingdom which has come to a constitutional dead end. We could do worse than to just cut-n-paste the Belgian constitution, with a few minor and necessary alterations to tailor it to our circumstances.

This would not only fix our terrible electoral system, protect human rights, and replace the House of Lords with a more suitable second chamber. It would also allow Scotland, Wales, England, and the two communities of Northern Ireland, each to be a distinct ‘community’, while Scotland, Wales, the English regions, and Northern Ireland as a whole, would be ‘regions’. So Scotland and Wales would each have the full competences of both a ‘region’ and a ‘community’ (as Flanders does) while England as a whole would be a community (for things like education) while the North East, and the South West (etc) would be regions (for things like economic development and transport). The English Parliament would be composed of the members of the English regional assemblies, who would be directly elected.

I’m just floating ideas here, but it would seem to offer a way out of ‘the English Question’ which otherwise would make federalism in the UK difficult. And it would not be the first time Belgium has been a model to the world. Belgium is probably second only to Westminster in being a ‘Mother of Parliaments’. Around half the constitutions of nineteenth century Europe were modeled on the Belgian Constitution of 1831.

[On the other hand, when you have to resort to examples like Belgium or the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a way of patching up the UK and holding it together, it makes you wonder whether we should bother…]