Belgium: A Tale of Regional Divergence?

Ellen Wayenberg, Filip De Rynck, Kristof Steyvers and Jean‐Benoît Pilet

in The Oxford Handbook of Local and Regional Democracy in Europe

Published in print November 2010 | ISBN: 9780199562978
Published online January 2011 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Politics & International Relations

Belgium: A Tale of Regional Divergence?

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  • Politics
  • Regional Political Studies
  • Comparative Politics



Under the surface of great unity, Belgium suffered from three cleavages that have divided the small nation. This article discusses the three cleavages that have influenced and affected the political make-up of Belgian. The first two have an indirect effect on subnational democracy as they are an expression of the structural relationship between the state, civil society, and the market. The third cleavage has a more direct bearing on democracy beyond the nation-state. The first cleavage is the rise of liberals opposing rural Catholic domination of society. A logic of subsidiarity was formed which developed a system of pillarization (verzuiling) which segmented society. The second cleavage is economic, as the mass labour force stood against a capitalist regime. With the development of the labour movement and the spread of voting rights, capitalism became more state-regulated. This led to corporatism where private organizations were given privileged status and often monopolized substantial aspects of public goods and service delivery. The last cleavage is the conflicts between two linguistic communities. This conflict affected the nature of the subnational democracy of Belgium. The combined effects of the three cleavages: pillarization, corporatism, and regionalization, made Belgium local governments and local leaders amongst the weakest in Europe. While tendencies of divergence are prevalent in the Belgian context, convergence is still a possibility: the regions integrated Belgian heritage into their political systems. The most crucial is the strong political localism which led to a complex intergovernmental and party-political lobbying and to blurred responsibilities which hollow out local democracy. In general, local democracy has been the victim of such systematic features.

Keywords: Belgium; subnational democracy; democracy; subsidiarity; pillarization; corporatism; regionalization; Belgium local governments; political systems

Article.  9527 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; Regional Political Studies ; Comparative Politics

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