How Belgium almost decentralised itself out of existence

A replica of the Manneken Pis statue stands at a makeshift memorial at Place de la Bourse, Brussels. Image: Getty.

Only days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, one of the Belgian-based organisers of the Paris attacks in November 2015, Brussels was rocked by two suicide attacks that killed more than 30 people and injured more than 200. The bombings have called attention to the crisis of security across Europe in the face of terrorism and radicalisation.

But the incidents also add color to the image of Belgium – my native country – as a failed nation-state, one that seems egregiously incapable of protecting its own people.

As it is, Belgium is no longer a nation-state in any functional sense, but rather a “federation” of three different regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Greater Brussels) and of three different “linguistic communities” (Dutch, French and German). As a result, it is host to an array of police and juridical districts that don’t map onto each other geographically, demographically or politically.

“Belgium” is now, arguably, just an intermediate stage on the way to a regularly predicted and yet never fully realised political separation.

So how, exactly, has it come so close to the point of simply ceasing to exist?

Language as wedge

Belgium’s “failure” has been a long time in the making. It stems from a century or more of determined and well-organised efforts to weaken the national state in favor of local control over almost all decision-making. This insidious politics of division has been advanced largely via language, the ultimate phony “wedge” issue in Belgium.

Though we share a country geographically smaller than the greater New York metropolitan area, we are a nation of polyglots, and most of us speak not only French and Dutch, but also English, German and other languages besides.

Historically a border region situated between France and the Netherlands and ruled by the royal Habsburg family, modern Belgium first emerged as an independent entity in 1789. But it was quickly absorbed into the Napoleonic French empire, and after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, merged into the kingdom of the Netherlands.

Anti-Dutch sentiment, fuelled by both religious and linguistic differences, led to the revolt of 1830, which created the current nation-state of Belgium.

In the 19th century, French reigned; it was spoken in the wealthy coal-rich south, and was the preferred idiom of the Francophilic bourgeois elite. But in the 20th century the situation was reversed. Mines in the French speaking Wallonian south became depleted and left endemic unemployment and poverty, while a commercial boom in the Dutch-speaking north empowered Flemish pride and linguistic assertiveness.

The German occupations during the two World Wars encouraged and exacerbated these rifts through calculated strategies of divide-and-rule, encouraging linguistic nationalist movements.

In the post-war era, the language issue was in principle “settled” by dividing the country along provincial/linguistic lines. Only the nine central communes of Brussels are officially bilingual, and one small eastern part of the country is officially German-speaking.

The provinces of Belgium. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Today, demographic data about who actually speaks which language are almost impossible to come by, since the Belgian constitution effectively stipulates that language follows region.

But “Flemings” and “Walloons” are not ethnic groups in any meaningful sense, and these labels don’t necessarily tally with the language people speak at home. Rather, they simply indicate in which region one resides, since Belgians are simply presumed to speak their region’s designated language. As an example of the confusion this creates, Brussels is officially bilingual even though most of its residents speak French – and yet it’s also the capital of Flanders.

In reality, we have families that readily straddle the supposed linguistic border between the regions. We go to soccer matches and sports events where players and spectators yell in unpredictable mixtures of both languages. We freely switch languages as the need arises. And yet, opportunistic wedge-issue campaigning by local politicians foments resentment that our “native” language (whatever that is) is not sufficiently respected or appreciated within our own confines (whatever those might be).

Neither here nor there

Precious little has been done to clean up this mess.

There’s little recognition that le français standard and algemeen Nederlands are in fact two imported foreign languages, rather than the old border dialects we traditionally spoke. Those dialects, which began to diminish as industrialisation swept the country, epitomised our uniquely opportune yet hopelessly marginalised status among the dominant European tongues and their cultural ambitions.

But even the two principal “foreign” languages of French and Flemish have yet to be properly embraced.

When Belgians travel abroad, we speak to each other in English to avoid offending the assumed linguistic sensitivities of other Belgians we don’t know – and at home, Belgian media and advertising are saturated with English. Indeed, we may be headed for an Anglophone future and the end of French and Dutch (to say nothing of classic Wallonian and Flemish).

But instead of the obvious solution of teaching everyone both languages in school and thereby eliminating much of the gap between them, Belgium has allowed endless arguments over local language differences to be used as pretexts for dragging state functions down to the local or municipal level.

This is made all the more acute by the EU’s explicitly stated aim of devolving power and decision-making downwards to “regions” and localities, bypassing the nation-state altogether – except in countries institutionally strong enough (the UK say) or even just homogeneous enough (such as Denmark) to resist.

The Belgian embrace of the EU is also a way to avoid addressing the needs of a nation-state in increasing distress.

The consequences of this elite-driven downward spiral of decentralisation were becoming increasingly and frighteningly apparent long before the 22 March attacks.

Ineptitude breeds disaster

Belgian national uproars used to be innocuous; the bourgmestre or mayor of a Flemish town would be revealed to be communicating with other members of the city council in French, or vice versa. But in the 1990s, these were superseded by examples of the Belgian police’s scandalous ineptitude in tracking criminal activity across the country’s linguistic, regional and municipal borders.

None was more infamous than the saga of serial child rapist and murderer Marc Dutroux, who was twice arrested but then freed before his final arrest.

While the EU’s programme of lowering external borders and trade barriers have helped Belgium become a strongly competitive economy, the very same policies have weakened the national state to the advantage of both local governments and the broader EU.

That made Belgium itself an increasingly dangerous centre of criminal activity, from drug-dealing and car theft and housebreaking (for which it has been ranked in the global top 20) to horrendous instances of human trafficking and violence against immigrants.

Immigration to Belgium increased under the all-but-insatiable labor needs of western Europe’s postwar economic miracle, and the country is now more than 10 percent foreign-born. Just over half of Belgium’s foreign citizens are from the EU’s member states; among the others, Moroccans and Turks are particularly visible.

Those who come to Belgium unaware of its invented linguistic divide often reject its self-divided culture. Many have retreated into sectarian communities – such as the sprawling Arab and Maghreban ghetto in Molenbeek – that view themselves as embattled and without a place in society at large.

If Belgians don’t imagine a way to reinvent themselves as a functioning nation-state, despite their linguistic and other differences, the consequences could be dire indeed.

Without a state strong enough to keep all its people safe, and cohesive enough to include all its divergent populations as citizens of a common polity, the forces behind what happened in Brussels on 22 March will only fester and grow.The Conversation

Georges Van Den Abbeele is dean of the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.