(Con)federalism: Cure or Curse?

Re-Bel e-book 18, Published in English in July 2015, 41 pages

Editors Kris Deschouwer & Johanne Poirier
Contributions by Kris Deschouwer, Philippe Destatte, Michael Keating, John Loughlin, Johanne Poirier, Jan Velaers


This e-book addresses two questions. Is there, or can there be a clear and unambiguous way to distinguish between different types of territorial (re)organization, in particular between federalism and confederalism. In a country that invests considerable energy in debates concerning its institutional future, it might be useful to agree on some basic terminology. Afgainst this background, in a country that is engaged in apparently never-ending discussions about what it actually is, and what it might become, it is also interesting to ask whether fiddling with the territorial organization of the state is a fruitful avenue. Can federal-type solutions really bring about a stable and lasting equilibrium? Or is there something like an inevitable slippery slope from unitarism to federalism to confederalism and finally full separation?

In the end, the question of whether (con)federalism is a cure or a curse for complex societies in general, and for Belgium is particular, is given a predictably nuanced answer by the contributors to this volume. Institutional designs, whether federal, confederal, or hybrid carry a number of advantages and hazards, which evolve with time and do not call for unanimous evaluations. A cure for some may be a curse for others. And, more importantly, a cure at some point in time may turn into a curse in the long run. Conversely, what may have appeared as a curse for some time may actually carry the seeds of (a temporary) cure. This volume challenges the idea that there are simple univocal definitions, unquestionable normative solutions or “once and for all” institutional arrangements.

The Future of Belgium’s Press

12th Public Event of the Re-Bel initiative
Thursday 18 June 2015, 2 to 6pm

Common challenges and contrasting prospects in the North and in the South

An e-book based on this event was published in October 2016:
The Future of the Belgian Press

All over the world, the printed press, not least the quality printed press, is facing an unprecedented challenge owing to the expansion of the internet as an alternative medium of communication. Part 1 will provide an overview of the current situation and trends affecting Belgium’s Dutch-language and French-language press and attempt to shed light on the striking differences this overview will reveal. Part 2 will start with a diverse panel of actors sketching how they see the future for Belgium’s press, and in particular what they believe needs doing in order to address the new threats and seize the new opportunities in the service of a high-quality press. As usual, there will be plenty of room for a lively discussion with the audience.


1.30 pm

2-3.45 pm
Part 1: “Is the situation of the press different in Dutch-speaking Belgium, in French-speaking Begium, in neighbouring countries, and why?”

Lead pieces presented by
Frédéric Antoine (UCL) and François Heinderyckx (ULB), authors the État des lieux des médias d’information en Belgique francophone
Els De Bens (UGent, author of De Pers in België, 2007) with Karin Raeymaeckers (director of the Center for Journalism Studies, UGent)

3.45-4.15 pm: Coffee break

Part 2: How can one secure an adequate production of the public good “quality press”?

Panel with the participation of
Ides Debruyne, managing director, journalismfund.eu
Béatrice Delvaux, éditorialiste en chef, Le Soir
Tom Naegels, ombudsman, De Standaard
Leo Neels, chairman of the Board of the press agency Belga (1994-2014)
Karl van den Broeck, editor in chief, Apache

6pm: Reception

Corruption in today’s Belgium

Re-Bel e-book 17, Published in English in June 2015, 41 pages

Edited by Estelle Cantillon
Contributions by Antonio Estache, Jeroen Maesschalck and François Vincke


Belgium seems to have an odd relationship with corruption. While most people condemn it, many consider (minor) occurrences of corruption as inevitable. Likewise, while evidence shows that corruption harms competitiveness and growth and a number of indicators point to the underperformance of Belgium in the fight against corruption, the current government agreement does not contain any mention of anti-corruption measures, despite a first chapter devoted to competitiveness and employment.

In this fascinating e-Book, based on a Re-Bel event that took place in December 2013, Antonio Estache, Jeroen Maesschalck and François Vincke take turns sharing their analysis of the drivers, prevalence, consequences and cures of corruption in Belgium. Their perspectives complement one another very nicely and offer some answers to the paradox. While it would be impossible for me to do proper justice to their analysis in this brief preface, I can’t help but note a vicious cycle at play in explaining the low salience that corruption has in the public debate. Belgium’s lack of commitment to fighting corruption means that the relevant data to detect and measure corruption are not collected, which reduces accountability (we live in the happy world of ignorance), which, in turn, facilitates corruptive practices and reduces the incentives for those in power to fight them. Breaking this vicious cycle is not easy: the main beneficiaries are taxpayers who are dispersed and have very small incentives individually by definition, and future generations who are not even represented. In addition, both Antonio Estache and Jeroen Maeschalck identify several cultural and institutional specificities of Belgium, such as the important role that political parties take or the strong tradition of hierarchical rather than procedural enforcement, that facilitate the current state of affairs. All three authors nevertheless outline different measures and approaches to effectively tackle corruption. This is also an area where Belgium could usefully learn from best practices abroad.

Economic regulation in today’s Belgium

Re-Bel e-book 16, Published in English in March 2015, 39 pages

Edited by Estelle Cantillon
Contributions by Jan Bouckaert and Axel Gautier, Paul De Grauwe and Yumei Ji, Patrick Van Cayseele


In our capitalist societies, the State and the Market are never very far apart and well-functioning markets often go hand in hand with well-designed institutions and regulations. At a time when these are significantly redrawn by developments taking place both at the European level and at the national level, we cannot avoid a discussion about their adequacy and performance.

This e-book, which is based on a Re-Bel event that took place in December 2013, analyses the quality and performance of Belgium’s regulatory set-up using the lenses of several key sectors. Jan Bouckaert and Axel Gautier’s piece primarily focuses on telecommunications and energy, while Paul De Grauwe and Yuemei Ji’s piece focuses on the banking sector. The choice of specific sectors serves to ground the diagnostic, but the emerging picture is not entirely dissimilar, and raises the issue (among others) of the insufficient independence of regulators in Belgium, both vis-à-vis the regulated sector as well as vis-à-vis the political power. Both contributions identify channels through which wrong incentives for the regulated firms are created. In his comments, Patrick Van Cayseele cautions however against a too hasty call for reform. Economic regulation is complex and involves many trade-offs. We do not live in what economists call a “second best world” but rather a third or fourth best world. Together, the two lead pieces and Van Cayseele’s comments provide a useful first step towards a grounded and objective assessment of the performance of economic regulation in Belgium and I would like to thank all the authors for their contribution to this needed debate. 

Belgium’s Diverging Memories. Is this so? If so, why? And is it a problem?

Re-Bel e-book 15, Published in English in January 2015, 37 pages

Edited by Bruno De Wever
Contributions by Maarten Van Ginderachter, Ann Roekens & Axel Tixhon, Nico Wouters, Laurence van Ypersele


Nations share (the idea of) a common past. What about Belgium? Does state reform goes along with diverging memories about the Belgian past? Is this a part of the “Belgian problem”? Or is it a wider phenomenon of the falling apart of collective national identities in a globalizing world? Must we care about a common national memory? 

According to the French historian Pierre Nora we are witnessing a world-wide upsurge in memory. Belgium is no exception. New museums are being built; Heritage and Open Monuments days are a huge success; heritage sites and living history events even more so; every day a new digital source collection is presented; political commissions seek the truth about events that happened long ago (Patrice Lumumba, Julien Lahaut); Belgian authorities offer apologies for their responsibilities in past crimes (the mayor of Antwerp to the Jewish community, the Belgian Prime Minister to the Rwandese Tutsi’s).

This “memorialism” finds its deeper reason in the search for a sense of belonging and a collective consciousness. Because of the rapid and continuous changing of the present – what Nora calls the “acceleration of history” – and the growing feelings of uncertainty about the future, people are seeking comfort in the past. Traditions, customs, landscapes, “terroir”, monuments etc. – ”les lieux de mémoires” in Nora’s words –, realms of memory, offer access to the past.

How does this general and world-wide pattern fits in with the actual Belgian state of affairs? The future of the Belgian nation-state has become very uncertain. Does this provoke memorialist activities concerning the Belgian past? Not at first sight. On the contrary, the Walloon, Brussels and Flemish regions and communities develop their own memorialist activities. This can be seen for instances in the commemoration of the centenary of WWI. Does this provoke diverging memories? If so, are these diverging memories part of the crisis of Belgian identity? These questions are raised in the contributions by Nico Wouters and Laurence van Ypersele on the present WWO-commemorations in Belgium.

Recent research on the way collective memories are constructed points at the importance of “memory makers”. As long as memory has not been organized by opinion makers it contains little more than atmosphere, feelings or another form of suggestion. It is therefore essential that the dynamic processes that lend a collective memory form, content and resonance, both top-down and bottom-up, should get a more structural interpretation. Memories only assume collective relevance when they are structured, represented and used in a social setting. Maarten Van Ginderachter argues that in the last four decades the Flemish nationalist memory has become dominant in Flanders. Its central tenet is victimisation and discrimination by Belgium. In his contribution he puts this into the historical perspective of the making of identities in Belgium on the one hand and the process of globalisation on the other. He concludes that diverging memories in Belgium are both a symptom and a cause of the drifting apart of communities in the country, but they are not the result of the challenges globalisation supposedly poses to national identities.

Anne Roekens and Axel Tixhon argue that these observations are related to the economic history of Belgium with the ups and downs in Flanders and Wallonia. This diverging history has led to popular images of a “poor Flanders” that struggled itself up to become a rich and prosperous region on the one hand and a “rich Wallonia” that went down into poverty and misery on the other hand. These images are very present in today’s political and societal debates in Belgium. But are the memories of this economic evolution the same in the various parts and communities of the country?

The apparent weakness of the Belgian federal state, especially in matters of culture (and thus in the field of history and memory) could well be one of the causes of the diverging memories on the Belgian past. That Belgium was once a strong nation-state finds no relevance in today’s society and is therefore forgotten or transformed into nostalgia without connection with the present and without relevance for the future.

(Con)federalism: Cure or Curse?

11th Public Event of the Re-Bel initiative
Thursday 19 June 2014, 2-6pm

An e-book based on this event was published in July 2015:
(Con)federalism: Cure or Curse?

Belgium is officially a federal state. The French-speaking Community of Belgium has changed its name from “Communauté française” to “Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles”. Several Flemish proposals for a further reform of Belgium put forward a “confederal” model, most often based on the premise that the current federation does not function properly. The choice of these words and the fierce debates about their meaning call for some reflection. How useful is it to use these terms for describing and re-thinking Belgium? If a unitary state that was transformed into a federation now faces further demands for confederalism, what does it tell us about federalism as an institutional solution for divided countries? Does federalism tend to appease tensions or to intensify them? And what would confederalism do? Is (con)federalism a cure or a curse?


1.30pm: Registration

2-3.45 pm
: Paul De Grauwe, London School of Economics & University of Leuven

Part 1: How useful are the classic terms of federalism and confederalism for understanding and planning the structure of the state?
Chair: Erik Schokkaert, University of Leuven
Introduction by John Loughlin, University of Cambridge
Comments by
Johanne Poirier, University of Brussels (ULB)
Jan Velaers, University of Antwerp

3.45-4.15 pm: Coffee break

Part 2: The paradox of federalism. Does federalism pacify or reinforce ethnic tensions?

Chair: Bea Cantillon, University of Antwerp
Introduction by Kris Deschouwer, University of Brussels (VUB)
Comments by
Michal Keating, University of Aberdeen
Philippe Destatte, Institut Jules Destrée

Conclusions: Philippe Van Parijs, Universities of Louvain & Oxford

6pm: Reception

The Malaise of Electoral Democracy and What to Do About It

Re-Bel e-book 14, Published in English in April 2014, 68 pages

Prologue and epilogue by David Van Reybrouck
Lead Pieces by Didier Caluwaerts & Min Reuchamps, and Kristof Jacobs
Commentary by Philippe Van Parijs


Throughout the world, the idea of “democracy”, the idea that the people should be governed by the people, remains a popular idea, enthusiastically embraced in many places by the opponents of autocratic regimes and safely protected in other places by the norms of political correctness. Nonetheless, the actual functioning of democratic regimes, based as it is in our country and elsewhere on the electoral process, seems to experience, if not a crisis, at least a deep malaise. And this malaise prompts a questioning of its foundations and a search for alternatives.

Two such alternatives are provided by deliberative assemblies of randomly chosen citizens on the pattern of the G1000 experiment that took place in Brussels in 2011 and by the European Citizens’ Initiatives launched in 2012. The 7th Re-Bel event organized on 24 May 2012 took these two interesting new experiments as the starting point of a reflection on the malaise of democracy and what to do about it.

The present e-book includes a much enriched version of the two main presentations made on that occasion, respectively by Didier Caluwaerts (VUB) and Min Reuchamps (UCL) and by Kristof Jacobs (University of Nijmegen). These two pieces are preceded by a set of aphorisms on democracy by the historian and writer David Van Reybrouck, the mastermind of the G1000 and author of Tegen verkiezingen (De Bezige Bij, 2013, translated as Contre les élections, Actes Sud, 2014). They are followed by a commentary by Philippe Van Parijs, which benefited greatly from the discussion at the Re-Bel event and in particular from the contributions by Henri Monceau (Notre Europe), Charlotte Rive (European Commission), Jean-Pierre Rondas (ex VRT) and Daniel Van Lerberghe (Euractiv). And this commentary is in turn followed by an epilogue in the form of a letter in which David Van Reybrouck responds to Philippe Van Parijs’s commentary.

Corruption and regulation in today’s Belgium

10th Public Event of the Re-Bel initiative
Thursday 19 December 2013, 2-6pm

Two e-books based on this event were published in 2015:
Economic regulation in today’s Belgium and Corruption in today’s Belgium.

Re-Bel’s December meeting will discuss corruption and regulation. Both topics deal with the way the public and private sectors interact in our market-based economies and therefore offer an opportunity to explore potential commonalities and differences as regards both causes and consequences.


13.30 Registration

14.00 Opening words by Estelle CANTILLON (ULB)

14.05 – 15.45

1. Corruption 

Corruption represents the hidden (and illegal) part of the interactions between the public sector and the private sector. It can be defined generally as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Corruption affects the behavior of public officials and public policies, moving them away from socially desirable outcomes. According to Transparency International, Belgium ranks 16th in the world in terms of perceived corruption, ahead of the UK and France but behind neighboring Netherlands and Germany. In their 2013 Global Corruption Survey, 66% of interviewed individuals in Belgium considered corruption to be a problem and 71% felt that government was largely run by a few big entities in their own interest rather than in society’s interest.


Lead piece:
Corruption in Belgium: Causes, consequences and solutions
by Antonio ESTACHE, ULB

Chantal HEBETTE (Past President of the Belgian Chapter of Transparency International) tbc
Jeroen MAESSCHALCK (Instituut voor Criminologie, KU Leuven)
François VINCKE (Vice-President of the Anti-Corruption Commission of the International Chamber of Commerce)

15.30 – 16.00 Coffee break

16.15 – 17.55 

2. Regulatory performance: The role of politics and institutional design

Insights from the electricity, telecom and financial sectors
Regulation covers all the ways in which, in our markets-based economies, the public sector influences, constrains, dictates or coordinates private activities for the common good. This session will deal with the question of institutional design and the role of politics in determining regulatory performance in Belgium. These themes will be explored through concrete examples of regulatory failures and successes, with an eye towards generating general principles and guidelines for improving regulatory designs.


Lead piece #1: Current challenges in the economic regulation of utilities in Belgium
by Jan BOUCKAERT (UA), Alexandre DE STREEL (UNamur) and Axel GAUTIER (ULg)

Lead piece #2: Regulation and supervision of the financial sector: The European Perspective
by Paul DE GRAUWE (LSE and KU Leuven)

Patrick VAN CAYSEELE (KU Leuven)

Final words:
Philippe VAN PARIJS (UCLouvain)

Must Brussels’s communes be merged ? The experiences of Antwerp, Berlin and Vienna

Re-Bel e-book 13, Published in English, Dutch and French in September 2013, 47 pages

Moeten de Brusselse gemeenten fusioneren? Ervaringen uit Antwerpen, Wenen en Berlijn

Faut-il fusionner les communes bruxelloises?Les expériences d’Anvers, Vienne et Berlin

Lead Piece by Wouter Van Dooren & Dave Sinardet


On the one hand, more competences must be exercised at the regional level of Brussels Capital. On the other, there must remain a level of political participation closer to the citizens. On these propositions, there is today a broad consensus. There are, however, fundamentally two distinct ways of reconciling these two demands. One consists in transferring to the Region a number of competences currently exercised by the communes, while keeping these as they are or even increasing their number. The other consists in merging all nineteen existing communes into a single one coinciding with the Region, while simultaneously creating a number of districts whose borders may or may not coincide with those of today’s communes.

In order to guide the choice between these two options, this e-book — the first one to be published in all three languages, proposes to learn from experience in three other cities: Antwerp, the Belgian city which is size-wise most comparable to Brussels, and two cities which, like Brussels, are both capital cities and components of a federation: Berlin and Vienna. A critical reflection on the achievements and problems linked to the internal organization of those three cities will not settle the issue. But it is a useful ingredient in a serene and uninhibited discussion on the indispensable reform of Brussels’ institutions.


Vandaag bestaat er een brede consensus dat het gewestelijke niveau in Brussel meer bevoegdheden moet krijgen en dat er een niveau van beleidsparticipatie moet zijn dat dichter bij de burger staat. In principe zijn er twee manieren om deze twee eisen te verzoenen. Een: een aantal bevoegdheden die momenteel in handen zijn van de gemeenten overdragen aan het gewest, met behoud van de gemeenten of zelfs een uitbreiding van het aantal. Twee: de huidige negentien gemeenten fusioneren tot één enkele gemeente binnen de huidige grenzen van het gewest, met tegelijkertijd zoals in Parijs en Antwerpen arrondissementen of districten die al dan niet overeenkomen met de huidige gemeenten.

Om tussen deze twee opties te kunnen kiezen is het nuttig te leren van de ervaringen van andere steden: Antwerpen, de Belgische stad die qua omvang het meest vergelijkbaar is met Brussel, en twee buitenlandse steden die – zoals Brussel – tegelijk het statuut van hoofdstad hebben en een federale entiteit zijn: Berlijn en Wenen. Een kritische reflectie op de ervaring van deze drie steden zal de kwestie niet regelen maar vormt een nuttig ingrediënt van een serene, taboeloze discussie over de noodzakelijke hervorming van de Brusselse instellingen.


D’une part, le niveau régional de Bruxelles-Capitale doit disposer de davantage de compétences. D’autre part, il doit subsister un niveau de participation politique à un niveau plus proche des citoyens. Il y a aujourd’hui un large consensus sur ces deux propositions. Mais il y a fondamentalement deux manières de les concilier. L’une consiste à transférer à la Région un certain nombre de compétences actuellement exercées par les communes tout en conservant celles-ci, voire en en accroissant le nombre. L’autre consiste à fusionner l’ensemble des dix-neuf communes actuelles en une commune unique dont les limites seraient celles de la Région, tout en créant simultanément, comme à Paris ou Anvers, des arrondissements ou districts correspondant ou non aux communes actuelles.

Pour guider le choix entre ces deux options, cet e-book — le premier à être publié dans les trois langues — propose d’apprendre des expériences d’autres villes: Anvers, la ville belge qui, par sa taille, est la plus comparable à Bruxelles, et deux villes étrangères qui, comme Bruxelles, ont à la fois un statut de capitale et d’entité fédérée : Berlin et à Vienne. Une réflexion critique sur les réussites et les problèmes liés à l’oganisation interne de ces trois villes ne tranchera pas la question. Mais elle constitue un ingrédient utile pour une discussion sereine et sans tabou sur la réforme indispensable des institutions bruxelloises.

Diverging memories in Belgium. Is this so? If so, why? And is it a problem?

9th Public Event of the Re-Bel initiative
Thursday 20 June 2013 from 2 to 6pm

Nations share (the idea of) a common past. What about Belgium? Does the succession of state reforms go hand in hand with a divergence of the memories about Belgium’s past? Is this a part of the “Belgian problem”? Or is it a wider phenomenon: the falling apart of collective national identities in a globalizing world? Must we care about a common national memory? Who are the agents of memory in our society? How can they be influenced? 


13.30 Registration

14.00 Opening words by Philippe VAN PARIJS (UCLouvain & Oxford)

14.05 – 15.30
A birth’s eye view on diverging memories in Belgium
Chaired & introduced by Bruno DE WEVER (UGent)

15.30 – 16.00 Coffee break

16.15 – 17.55
Diverging memories: themes
Chaired by Estelle CANTILLON (ULB)

‘Poor Flanders – Rich Wallonia’ (or vice versa)
Maarten VAN GINDERACHTER (UAntwerpen)
Axel TIXHON & Anne ROEKENS (UNamur)

WWI battlefield of memories?
Laurence VAN YPERSELE (UCLouvain)
Nico Wouters (CEGES)

17.55 Closing words by Paul DE GRAUWE (LSE & KU Leuven)

18.00 Reception